A new season starts on Thursday, as the Illinois basketball team looks to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
The Illini enters the Big Dance with whatever the antonym of momentum is. Losing two in a row, three out of the past four, and six out of the past 10 games is not a great way to enter the most important time of the year.
But, as mentioned above, this is a new season. Everyone who made the NCAA tournament has a record of 0-0. Some might say you can throw the records out in March.
First up for the Illini is the Arkansas Razorbacks. This is a tough team full of young talented players. Obviously, I am a bit worried, but there are some things Illinois can do to get the victory.
Here are five keys for the Illinois basketball team to beat the Arkansas Razorbacks
1. Illinois needs to cool down Nick Smith Jr.
There have been numerous players this season go off against the Illini. These big games have enabled opponents to either win or make the game competitive.
In the double-overtime win against Michigan, Hunter Dickinson went for 31 points. Northwestern had Boo Buie drop 35 points on Illinois. Jalen Pickett helped Penn State knock off the Illini with a 41-point performance as well.
Illinois is going to need to play some defense against Arkansas if we hope to contain some of their best players, like Nick Smith Jr.
Smith was injured for much of the season but has come back stronger than ever starting in mid-February. Since then, he has been putting up some big numbers. Smith has averaged 19.5 points per game in his last six contests, and he is 15-of-36, 41.7%, from three-point range in this span.
Illinois isn’t a great three-point shooting defensive team, as we are lazy through screens and don’t close out well. This could mean a big game for Smith. If the Illini want any chance to win the game, we need to contain Smith. Keeping him under 20 points would be optimal.