Bloomington – Sorry, IU fans, a made-for-TV second-round NCAA meeting with No. 1 North Carolina will have to wait.
The Hoosiers have to figure out a way to get past Arkansas first.
While everyone's eyes immediately got wider at the thought (or was it fear?) of playing the top-ranked Tar Heels in a second-round in Raleigh, N.C., IU first has to tackle an athletic Razorbacks' squad Friday night.
This John Pelphrey-coached team will be no pushover. Arkansas went 22-11 overall, 9-7 in the SEC and was the runner-up to Georgia in the SEC postseason tourney. It has a couple victories over No. 18 Vanderbilt, a one-point win over No. 4 Tennessee, and a 19-point drubbing of two-time defending national champion Florida on its resume.
It's an athletic and balanced squad that rebounds well and excels when it's able to push the pace. That was clear in its 92-91 win over Tennessee in the SEC tourney semifinals, a victory that improved the Hogs to 15-0 when they score 75 or more points.
"I'll say it might be a faster paced game, especially against Arkansas," IU freshman Eric Gordon said about his expectations for his first NCAA game. "I saw them play (in the SEC final against Georgia). They are an up and down tempo type team."
That might be a welcomed opportunity for an IU team that is probably at its best when it attacks in transition as well. After playing a series of grind-it-out games in the final weeks of the Big Ten season, Indiana might have an opportunity to make some things happen in the open floor.
While style is a concern for the Hoosiers, so is the Razorbacks' personnel. They're big up front with 6-10, 243-pound forward Darian Townes and 7-0, 245-pound center Steven Hill likely to start, while 6-8, 231-pound Charles Thomas and 6-10, 224-pound Charles Washington give Pelphrey quality minutes off the bench.
Townes averaged 11.9 points and 5.2 rebounds during the regular season, but upped that to 17 points and six rebounds during Arkansas' SEC tourney run. Hill (4.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg) is more of a threat on the defensive end where he averages 2.2 blocks in only 16.3 minutes/game, but he did make the game-winner in the closing seconds to beat Tennessee.
Thomas provides some additional scoring punch. After failing to score in double figures 10 straight games from Jan. 26 – March 4, Thomas has reached double digits in each of his last four contests, highlighted by a 24-point, 10-rebound effort against Tennessee.
On the perimeter, Arkansas has three capable scorers in senior point guard Gary Ervin, senior wing Sonny Weems, and sophomore shooting guard Patrick Beverley.
The 6-6, 203-pound Weems leads the Razorbacks in scoring (14.3) and steals (1.3) and is a 36.8 percent shooter from behind the 3-point arc. An all-SEC selection, Weems broke out of a four-game, 9-of-41 shooting slump to make 8-of-15 shots and score 17 in the SEC title game loss to Georgia.
Beverley is a one-time IU recruiting target out of Chicago who does a little bit of everything for the Razorbacks. The team's second-leading scorer at 12.0/game, the 6-1, 180-pound Beverley made a team-high 62 3-pointers, leads the team in rebounding with 6.7/contest, and has also blocked 16 shots.
Ervin, meanwhile, is the team's top perimeter defender, earning all-SEC Defensive team honors. The 6-0, 182-pound senior averaged 9.6 points, a team-best 3.9 assists, and 1.3 steals.
That trio will get some bench help from 6-2, 185-pound Stefan Welsh, who started 21 of 33 games this season. Welsh averaged 5.4 points while shooting 33 percent from 3-point range.
It all adds up to a difficult assignment for the Hoosiers if they hope to have a shot at North Carolina on Sunday.
"The 8/9 game is always tough," said IUCoach Dan Dakich. "You've got to win, but it is a great opportunity for us if we decide to take advantage of it."
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