DES MOINES, Iowa — In early December if someone had suggested the University of Arkansas basketball team would play Illinois in the NCAA Tournament, a Sweet 16 matchup sounded reasonable.
The Razorbacks were ranked No. 9 in The Associated Press poll with an 11-1 record that included neutral site victories over No. 17 San Diego State and Oklahoma with the only loss to No. 8 Creighton at a neutral site.
The Illini were ranked No. 16 with a 7-2 record, including neutral site victories over No. 8 UCLA and No. 2 Texas, and losses to No. 16 Virginia at a neutral site and at No. 22 Maryland.
But that Sweet 16 projection would have been wrong.
Arkansas and Illinois no longer are ranked, but they’re both in the NCAA Tournament and meet at 3:30 p.m. today in a first-round West Region game in Wells Fargo Arena.
The Razorbacks (20-13) are the No. 8 seed and the Illini (20-12) are seeded No. 9.
Along with having nearly identical records, the teams had similar trajectories to wind up on the same court at the same time in Iowa.
Arkansas and Illinois made the NCAA Tournament from conferences with the most bids — eight each for the SEC and Big Ten — that also produced two No. 1 seeds in Alabama and Purdue.
“Anytime there is an 8, 9 seed and it’s Power Five [conference] involved, you’re going to see teams that have some peaks and some valleys,” Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman said. “That’s certainly been the case with us, with the injuries and being one shot or one possession away from more than a few other wins that we potentially could have had.
“But we also knew when we had a roster of 13 with six freshmen that there were going to be some ups and downs and then when you have the [season-ending] injury [to Trevon Brazile], and six of your 12 are freshmen, that’s kind of to be expected.
“I think we’re still evolving and still improving. I truly believe that. Hopefully [today] we’ll be a better team than we were against Texas A&M.”
Texas A&M beat Arkansas 67-61 in the SEC Tournament last Friday in Nashville, Tenn. That was the day before Penn State beat Illinois 79-76 in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.
The Aggies, 2-1 against Arkansas, and Nittany Lions, 3-0 against Illinois, also are in the NCAA Tournament.
As another reminder of the similarities for the Razorbacks and Illini in getting to this point of the season, Texas A&M and Penn State also will play tonight in the Wells Fargo Center.
The Razorbacks, averaging 74.4 points and holding opponents to 67.4 per game with the Illini at 74.7 and 67.0 in those categories, are playing in the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season. So is Illinois.
Junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis is playing in a third consecutive NCAA Tournament for the Razorbacks. Junior forward Coleman Hawkins is playing in a third consecutive NCAA Tournament for the Illini.
Musselman has led Arkansas to four consecutive seasons with 20 or victories. Illinois has won 20 or more games for the fourth consecutive season under Coach Brad Underwood.
The Razorbacks are 3-6 in their last nine games. The Illini are 4-6 in their last 10 games.
“I think our season has been up and down, but I think we have learned through the ups and downs,” Davis said. “As individuals and as a group as well.
“I think it humbled us and helped us as a whole group and I feel like we have gotten better through the ups and downs.
“Looking at Illinois, similar records and ups and downs as well. But we’re coming in to win and we’re just focused on beating them for sure.”
The Razorbacks and Illini each have six freshmen as well as impact transfers such as Ricky Council and twins Makhi and Makhel for Arkansas and Terrence Shannon and Matthew Mayer for Illinois.
“I feel like every team is going to go through some things,” said Shannon, a senior who played at Texas Tech the previous three seasons. “But the guys that are here now, they stuck through it and fought through adversity that we faced.
“It just brought us closer together and that’s how we got here now.”
Hawkins said that as a team with a lot of newcomers, it took the Illini some time to mesh.
“I think we have done a pretty good job of learning from mistakes and getting this far,” Hawkins said. “I think it’s time new guys aren’t new guys and people are going to have to step up and play as hard as they can and limit their mistakes so we can go out and win.”
Point guard Anthony Black is among three freshmen in the Razorbacks’ rotation along with guard Nick Smith and forward Jordan Walsh.
“We’ve been through so much together, there’s nothing we haven’t seen at this point,” Walsh said of the Razorbacks overall. “Now we’re just fighting to win.”
Brazile, a sophomore transfer forward from Missouri, averaged 13.3 points and 6.0 rebounds for the Razorbacks before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against North Carolina-Greensboro. Smith, averaging 14.0 points, missed 19 games because of right knee management.
Illinois freshman guard Skyy Clark started 12 of the first 13 games and averaged 7.0 points, then left the team. He’s now in the transfer portal and Arkansas is among the teams recruiting him.
Shannon and freshman guard Jayden Epps each missed two games because of concussions and sophomore forward Like Goode missed the first 23 games after undergoing foot surgery in October.
“It’s been a season of speed bumps, a season of good things, bad things,” Underwood said. “And yet there was a lot more good, because we’re in this thing again.
“We get to go play another game to show what we’re capable of, and what we can be. And if we do that, we get to play another one.”
North Carolina was AP’s No. 1 team in the preseason rankings and is among six teams in the first poll not to make the NCAA Tournament along with Villanova, Oregon, Michigan, Dayton and Texas Tech.
Arkansas and Illinois are two of four teams in the preseason poll that aren’t in this week’s poll, but made the NCAA Tournament, along with Auburn and Kentucky.
“Every team in college basketball has their own paths and ups and downs,” Council said. “North Carolina started out preseason No. 1 and now they’re not in the tournament.
“The fact that we were able to grind and get through it and even make it to the tournament is big-time, so we can’t overlook that. Every team takes their bumps. The fact that we made it here and was able to be an 8 seed, that was big-time.”
Scottie Bordelon of wholehogsports.com contributed information for this report