Only two players from the 8-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks roster have played in the NCAA Tournament before, and that experience will be much needed for Thursday’s game against the 9-ranked Illinois team they have on their roster. Postseason.
Junior guard Davonte Davis and senior forward Kamani Johnson were the only Hogs running backs entering this season, and both were all the way through two consecutive Elite Eight rounds.
While Johnson was ineligible during the 2021 postseason and played a very limited role in 2022, Davis was a key part of the Razorbacks both years.
Davis averaged just under 31 minutes, 7.8 points and three rebounds per game for Arkansas over four NCAA tournament games last season. As a freshman in 2021, the Jacksonville native played some of the best basketball of his Razorback career, averaging 33.8 minutes, 14.3 points, and 6.5 rebounds in four games.
Not only having tournament experience but achieving a high level of success on the larger stage would benefit Davis and allow him to teach the youth.
“I think just going in I knew the game wasn’t going to be easy,” Davis said. “You have to fight for it. It’s the win or go home. There are a lot of teams not playing now. I know a lot of guys who are in teams not playing now and it doesn’t feel good.
“They talked to me about their season and how it feels. I don’t want, not just me, but the guys who may not come back to feel the way they do after finishing a season that could be history for the University of Arkansas. We’re going to try everything we can to keep playing.”
The only Arkansas freshman with experience playing in the NCAA Tournament is Ricky Council IV, who played nine minutes and did not score as a freshman in Wichita State’s first-round exit against Drake in the 2021 postseason.
“Of course, they don’t know what to expect,” Davis said of his teammates. “Even some of the new players weren’t in that position to go to March Madness. I talked to them and told them it was going to be fun, but it was also going to be tough basketball, and hopefully we’d get to get ready right after and get to work.”
Arkansas will need to prepare and prepare quickly, as it faces a team from Illinois that has plenty of players with postseason experience. Texas Tech transfer Terence Shannon Jr. played five tournament games with the Red Raiders and Matthew Meyer competed in 10 NCAA Tournament contests with Baylor, also winning a national championship in 2021.
The trio of Coleman Hawkins, RJ Melendez and Luke Goode also all saw the NCAA Tournament with Illinois.
“They are a good team,” said freshman Anthony Black. “They’re tall. They can shoot the ball. They’ve got some great blockers and super-talented players. Two Big 12 transfers and they’re good players. They’re a good team, and we’ve got to get a good run. The play-and-go plan is in place.”
Although they are less experienced, the Razorbacks are full of young talent in Black and Nick Smith Jr. and Jordan Walsh, along with transfers like Council, the Mitchell twins, and Jalen Graham making value.
After playing a grueling SEC schedule that included games against seven teams that earned an NCAA tournament bid — Tennessee, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky and Auburn — the Razorbacks were pretty tested.
“You look at our schedule overall in the SEC, it’s been about as tough as any conference schedule in all of college basketball,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “Then you add the fact of who we played in the end. Really tough games, even the two games we played in the SEC Tournament. I mean, we’ve played two teams now in the NCAA Tournament. So our team has been challenged all year and we’ll be up against a team like Illinois as well.”
While there is still a question of how the Hogs will perform on the big stage at Big Dance, there is no doubt that they are confident they can compete with anyone.
“(We’re) really confident,” Black said. “We’ve got the talent, the training, and now we just have to get it together. We’ve shown what we can do against the top teams. Even if we don’t win games, we’ve been very competitive almost every game this season. It’s going to be about getting everything together at the right time and running. “
Having made two consecutive runs, Davis said he believes the team is ready for the task at hand.
“Once you got to the Elite Eight, of course you were there, and it’s not about body shots and things like that at that point,” said Davis. “Sometimes you have to put it in God’s hands, you know, because everybody’s exhausted when it comes to that point. And I guess I could say we’d definitely be prepared for whatever lies ahead.”
Arkansas and the Illini will be at 3:30 p.m. CET inside the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. The game will be broadcast on TBS.