Illinois vs. Arkansas 2023 March Madness First Round Betting Preview: Illini Haven’t Fared Well As Worse Seed

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Matthew Mayer #24 of Illinois takes a shot over Miller Kopp #12 of Indiana on February 18, 2023. Justin Casterline/Getty Images/AFP

Top NCAAB Pick for Today

NCAAB Pick: Arkansas -2 (-102) with BookMaker (visit our Bookmaker Review)

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Arkansas -2 (-102)
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Picks Summary:

  • Arkansas -2 (-102)
  • Over 143 (-110)

For obvious reasons, 8 vs. 9 seed games in the NCAA Tournament usually are very evenly matched, and that appears to be the case Thursday in West Region action from Iowa as No. 9 Illinois of the Big Ten faces No. 8 Arkansas of the SEC.

Which side of the 2-point spread at the top-rated online books is the smart lean for your top NCAAB pick? We also have a total play. 

Remember, fans from the Land of Lincoln who want to wager on this game should check out our top-rated Illinois betting sites.

Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Arkansas Razorbacks 

Thursday, March 16, 2023 – 04:30 PM EDT at Wells Fargo Arena

One of the most intriguing matchups on the first Thursday of the 2023 NCAA Tournament is clearly this matchup between No. 9 Illinois and No. 8 Arkansas from the West Region with TBS having the telecast.

The winner almost surely faces No. 1 Kansas in the Round of 32 – KU coach Bill Self used to be the coach at Illinois. 

The Illini’s Big Ten and Razorbacks’ SEC both got eight teams in the 2023 Big Dance, most of any league – although the SEC already is down to seven with Mississippi State a minor upset loser to Pittsburgh in First Four action on Tuesday. 

Illinois is 5-0 all-time vs. Arkansas, but that means little considering the teams haven’t played since 2004 and never in the NCAA Tournament. 

Illini Not Good As Worse Seed 

Illinois (20-12) finished sixth in the Big Ten and was upset in its Big Ten Tournament opener 79-76 against Penn State – go ahead and rule out the Illini winning the national title as no school since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985 has won it all after losing its conference tournament opener.  

Coach Brad Underwood’s team is led by two Big 12 transfers: Terrence Shannon Jr. from Texas Tech and Matthew Mayer from Baylor.

Shannon was named first-team All-Big Ten. In the regular season, he led the Illini in scoring and ranked seventh in the Big Ten at 17.1 points per game. He led the league in free throws made (153) while ranking second in attempts (192). Mayer was named third-team all-conference. He averages 12.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game and won a national title two years ago with Baylor.  

Another Round in the Big Dance

It’s the 33rd all-time NCAA Tournament appearance for the Illini and the third straight. They are 42-33 in the Big Dance and have reached five Final Fours. Those 42 wins are third most among teams yet to win a national championship, trailing Purdue (44) and Oklahoma (43). 

Underwood is 4-6 in his coaching career in the NCAA Tournament and 2-2 with Illinois. Last year, the Illini were a No. 4 seed and squeaked by No. 13 Chattanooga 54-53 in the first round before losing 68-53 to No. 5 Houston in  Round 2. 

While Shannon and Mayer are good players, there’s not much else there. Illinois enters having lost five of eight and the only NCAA Tournament team it beat in that stretch was Northwestern, rallying from down 18 points.  

  • The Fighting Illini are 3-9 ATS in their last 12 neutral site games. 
  • The Fighting Illini are 1-5 ATS in their last 6 games overall. 
  • The over is 4-1 in the Fighting Illini’s last 5 neutral site games. 

While the Illini have won four straight opening-round games in the NCAA Tournament, it is 2-10 overall in the Dance as a worse seed and 1-7 against SEC teams.

At BMR’s top-rated books, Illinois is (+20000) to win the NCAA Tournament, (+500) to reach the Sweet 16, and (+3500) to win the West. Can’t say I recommend any of those.

The Big Ten hasn’t won a title since 2000, and I believe that drought continues as well. Sorry, Purdue. 

NCAAB Pick: Arkansas -2 (-102) with BookMaker 

Back To Elite Eight For Hogs? 

No. 8 seeds actually trail No. 9 seeds 76-72 since the field expanded in 1985. Last year, three No. 9s advanced. The last time the four No. 8s all won was in 2019. The worst-seeded national champion since ’85 was a No. 8 seed: Villanova with that epic upset of No. 1 Georgetown in 1985.  

While I think Arkansas has the talent to reach the Final Four, I don’t see it going further. The Hogs are (+8000) to win the national title, (+1400) to win the West, and (+300) to reach the Sweet 16. Coach Eric Musselman has led Arkansas to the Elite Eight in each of the past two tournaments.  

The Razorbacks (20-13) entered having lost four of five, but to fellow NCAA Tournament teams Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, and all but one of those competitive. We previewed the team’s SEC Tournament opener last week against Auburn and backed the Hogs – that’s their lone win in this stretch, 76-73. Arkansas’ current NCAA NET ranking is 21, one spot lower than it was last season at this time when it was a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

Young Talent on Display

The team’s most talented player, sure-fire 2023 NBA lottery pick Nick Smith Jr., didn’t suit up for 19 games due to injury/indecision about returning but is back now and playing well. He did turn the ball over five times, though, in the SEC Tournament loss to Texas A&M and that’s been a problem all year for this team as Arkansas’ 18.2% turnover rate on offensive possessions was 11th out of 14 SEC teams. 

Another freshman also has been terrific in Anthony Black, who was voted second-team All-SEC and to the SEC All-Freshman team. He’s the only player in the SEC Top 25 in the league in points (12.9 ppg), rebounds (5.1 rpg), assists (4.2 apg), steals (1.97), and blocks (0.6). Black’s 65 steals have tied the program record for most by a Razorback freshman in a season along with Kareem Reid in 1996. 

It’s the 36th NCAA Tournament appearance for Arkansas, which is 48-34 in it. The school is 18-8 in tournament openers. It is the third time the Razorbacks are a No. 8 seed. They won in 2017 vs. Seton Hall in the opener but lost in 2006 to Bucknell. 

Arkansas didn’t play a Big Ten team this season and hasn’t faced one in the Big Dance since beating Indiana in the first round 15 years ago. There was a common SEC opponent between the Hogs and Illini: Missouri. The Tigers trashed Illinois 93-71 on Dec. 22 at a neutral site and split two close games with Arkansas. 

  • The Razorbacks are 4-1 ATS in their last 5 neutral site games. 
  • The over is 5-2 in the Razorbacks’ last 7 overall. 

I like the Hogs something like 75-71. With the spread so low, you might consider the moneyline just to avoid a bad beat at the end against the NCAAB odds – that way, you are covered if the game ends on a Hogs two-point buzzer-beater.  

NCAAB Pick: Over 143 (-110) at BetOnline (visit our BetOnline Review)

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Over 143 (-110)
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