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A trip to the Sweet 16 in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament is on the line Saturday when the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks face the no. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks. Both teams cruised to easy wins in the First Round on Thursday, setting up what should be a competitive game. Oddsmakers have made the Jayhawks a mere 3.5-point favorite in this Big 12-SEC clash.
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Arkansas took care of business in a big way on Thursday, beating Illinois 73-63 in a game the Razorbacks led almost from start to finish. It was far from the best offensive performance of the season for the Hogs, who shot just 38.1% from the field and 27.3% from three-point range. However, Arkansas won the battle on the boards and was ruthless defensively, holding Illinois to just 38.1% shooting and forcing 17 turnovers.
Such an impressive performance could be considered a surprise after how Arkansas ended the season. The Razorbacks lost four of their last five games and six of their last nine games heading into the NCAA Tournament. To be fair, all six of those losses came against teams in the field of 68. On the season, the Razorbacks were only 6-11 against teams that made the NCAA Tournament with only one of those wins coming on the road. It’s likely the Hogs will face a road environment on Saturday when they battle top-seeded Kansas, a team that typically travels well during tournament time.
Arkansas is led by a flurry of guards, most notably Ricky Council IV. The 6’6’’ junior is the team’s leading scorer with 16 points per game. At 6’7’’, freshman Anthony Black gives Arkansas another big guard who scores 12.8 points per game, leads the team in assists at 4.1 per game, and is one of the team’s best rebounders. There is also junior guard Davonte Davis, who averages 10.7 points per game and is the biggest threat Arkansas has from the perimeter, leading the team with 45 made three-pointers this season.
Finally, freshman guard Nick Smith might be the biggest X-factor for Arkansas. An injury in December sidelined Smith for nearly two months. But despite the Hogs struggling down the stretch, he’s come alive, averaging 17.6 points per game over his last seven games. But after scoring just six points in 28 minutes during the win over Illinois, the Razorbacks will need more from Smith if they hope to pull off the upset over Kansas.
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The Jayhawks made their First Round win over Howard look rather routine, at least in the second half. However, Kansas did get off to a sluggish start defensively, trailing Howard at times during the first half. Ultimately, the Jayhawks were able to pull away in the second half, winning 96-68 and covering the 22-point spread after shooting 52.1% from the field.
For the Jayhawks, the win over Howard was a good bounce-back effort after being embarrassed in a 20-point loss against Texas in the Big 12 Tournament championship game last weekend. Of course, it’s worth noting that after Thursday’s win, the Jayhawks have won 10 of their last 12 games. In fact, both losses during that stretch came against Texas. On the season, Kansas is now 28-7 overall and 16-7 against teams in the NCAA Tournament.
The question for the Jayhawks heading into Saturday’s game is whether or not head coach Bill Self will be on the sidelines. Self missed the Big 12 Tournament and Thursday’s game because of a health issue. He’s not yet been fully cleared to return to the sidelines during games. If not, Norm Roberts will continue to manage Kansas in-game.
The top-seeded Jayhawks have a star-studded lineup that's led by Jalen Wilson, who is a finalist for National Player of the Year. Wilson led Kansas this year with 20.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while also making the second-most three-pointers on the team. He’s complemented by freshman Gradey Dick, who shoots 40.4% from three-point range and averages 14.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
Kansas also has two more double-digit scorers with Kevin McCullar Jr. and K.J. Adams Jr. Finally, Dajuan Harris Jr. is the straw that stirs the drink for Kansas. He scores just 8.8 points per game but paces the Kansas offense with 6.3 assists per game. Backup point guard Joseph Yesufu also provides a veteran presence for the Kansas backcourt.
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With the type of suffocating defense that the Razorbacks showed on Thursday, Arkansas will have a chance to give Kansas a problem and pull off the upset. The Hogs ranked 13th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. However, quality offensive teams have started to figure out the Arkansas defense. They’ve allowed at least 73 points in four of their last six games, losing three of those four games. With Arkansas averaging 74.4 points per game, the Hogs may need to have one of their best offensive games of the season to win on Saturday.
Keep in mind that Kansas is also one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranking seventh in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. The Jayhawks are also 25th in adjusted offensive efficiency and grew accustomed to facing plenty of quality defensive teams in the Big 12. Of course, in their two recent losses against Texas, the Jayhawks struggled offensively and were held under 60 points.
While Arkansas has a chance in this game, its path to a win is somewhat narrow. The Jayhawks are a better shooting team than the Razorbacks and also have the ability to score easy points in transition. That makes them tough to slow down for 40 minutes. Unless Arkansas can play suffocating defense for 40 minutes or have its best offensive game of the season, the Jayhawks should eventually pull away to win and cover the 3.5-point spread on their way to reaching the Sweet 16.
Location: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
Game Time & Date: 5:15 EST on Saturday, March 18
TV Network: CBS
Streaming: NCAA March Madness Live App and Paramount Plus
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