Arkansas vs Mississippi State: How Nick Smith Jr Will Mesh with Hogs’ 3-Headed Monster

Ricky Council IV, Anthony Black, Davonte Davis, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Mississippi State
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

LIVE UPDATES – Arkansas vs Mississippi State

Pregame Tidbits

As reported by multiple outlets – including by the man himself – Nick Smith Jr. appears to be available for today’s Arkansas vs Mississippi State game. He was a full participant in pregame warmups and didn’t seem to be limited at all. He’ll come off the bench.

The Razorbacks are using the same starting lineup they’ve used the last three games, with the Mitchell twins starting alongside the usual guard trio.

11:15, 1H – Arkansas 16, Mississippi State 16

The Razorbacks have yet to turn it over, but good looks have been tough to come by. They’re consistently working deep into the shot clock against Mississippi State’s defense, which is No. 4 in the country, per KenPom.

Nick Smith Jr. checked in at the 12:46 mark and his first shot, a 3-pointer from the wing, was partially blocked.

Despite the offensive struggles, Arkansas is still 6 of 14 (42.9%) from the floor and Jalen Graham finished a dunk through contact just before the media timeout and can complete the 3-point play when play resumes. It came after a tremendous pass by Devo Davis.

HALF – Mississippi State 34, Arkansas 25

The offensive struggles continued for Arkansas over the back half of the opening 20. The Razorbacks appear very hesitant to shoot the ball and it’s resulted in several bad looks late in the shot clock.

Davonte Davis, riding a streak of nine straight games scoring 15-plus, was held scoreless and missed all six of his shots.

The Razorbacks’ final offensive possession ended with Makhel Mitchell being called for a charge trying to dunk over somebody.

HALFTIME STATS – Arkansas vs Mississippi State

7:02, 2H – Mississippi State 55, Arkansas 46

Mississippi State stretched its lead to 16 at the 13:54 mark, but Arkansas used an 11-0 run over the span of about three minutes to make it a five-point game. The Razorbacks had a couple of chances to get closer than that, but couldn’t convert.

The final bucket on that run was a 3-pointer by Davonte Davis, who had missed his first nine shots of the game and was previously scoreless. Ricky Council IV is 0 of 5 from the floor, but does have seven points at the free throw line.

The biggest offensive threat is Anthony Black, who has 18 points on 6 of 10 shooting. He’s also got four assists.

FINAL – Mississippi State 70, Arkansas 64

A fastbreak layup by Davonte Davis pulled the Razorbacks within 3 with a little over a minute to go and looked like they might force a turnover on the ensuing in bound play, but Davis was called for a foul. Mississippi State knocked down both free throws and Arkansas never got back within one possession.

Anthony Black finished with a game-high 23 points, while four different Bulldogs reached double figures.

It’s the first time since Dec. 3 against Mississippi Valley State that Mississippi State reached 70 points in regulation.

FINAL STATS – Arkansas vs Mississippi State

Starting Lineups

Mississippi StateArkansas
#3 – G Shakeel Moore#0 – G Anthony Black
#10 – G Dashawn Davis#4 – G Davonte Davis
#0 – F D.J. Jeffries#1 – G Ricky Council IV
#1 – F Tolu Smith#15 – F/C Makhi Mitchell
#4 – F Cameron Matthews#22 – F/C Makhel Mitchell

Arkansas vs Mississippi State Preview

There is a renewed excitement surrounding Arkansas basketball after it took down Kentucky — while sporting the Slobberin’ Hog logo — for its second straight win at Rupp Arena, a program first.

What has caused it to reach a fever pitch, though, is the seemingly imminent return of Nick Smith Jr., who the Razorbacks are “optimistic and hopeful” will be back soon after returning to practice this week, head coach Eric Musselman said.

It was the first solid update on his status in more than a month and, mere hours after that Wednesday press conference, Smith went on Instagram Live to announce he’d be available to play Saturday against Mississippi State.

Now riding high on a five-game SEC winning streak, and potentially getting their star freshman back, the Razorbacks are back at Bud Walton Arena for a 5 p.m. tip that will be televised on ESPNU.

It will be their first game in front of a full home crowd in three weeks, as their last two home games were in the middle of the week and impeded by inclement weather conditions.

What to Expect from Mississippi State

Much like Kentucky, this year’s Mississippi State basketball team leans heavily on its preseason All-SEC forward, Tolu Smith. The 6-foot-10 senior is averaging 14.7 points and 8.3 rebounds on the season while leading his team in both 2-point field goal attempts (9.4 per game) and overall field goal percentage (58.4%).

Smith has played against the Hogs four times in his three collegiate seasons – once at Western Kentucky and three times since transferring to Mississippi State. In his time with the Bulldogs, Smith has averaged 13 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.0 steals against Arkansas, including a game with 18 points, 6 rebounds and 5 steals last season. This matchup – along with 6-foot-10 reserve William McNair, who averages 3.8 points and 3.5 rebounds off the bench – may require another big outing from Makhel and Makhi Mitchell.

“You’ve got to be able to defensively defend the paint,” Musselman said. “(It starts) with Tolu Smith inside, who’s averaging 15 points a game on the year and 13 in conference play.”

Against Kentucky, Musselman deployed a half-court trap defense to force the ball out of Cason Wallace’s hands as soon as he crossed half court. This strategy worked to near perfection several times, but it was likely deployed due to how talented and dangerous Wallace is specifically. Unless one of Mississippi State guards start causing serious damage, expect the Razorbacks’ focus to be on Smith and McNair in the paint this time around.

D.J. Jeffries spearheads the shooting attack for MSU, averaging 4.5 long-range attempts per game – though he connects at just a 28% clip. In his last game against LSU, however, he went 5 of 6 from downtown on his way to a game-high 18 points. At 6-foot-7, Jeffries is a versatile forward who could see a wide variety of defenders over the course of the game, including Makhi Mitchell, Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh.

Senior guard Dashawn Davis is the Bulldogs’ best 3-point shooter from an efficiency standpoint. At 6-foot-2, the Oregon State transfer is shooting right at 39% on the season, including 11 games shooting 50% or better from distance. Black did an excellent job of negating Kentucky’s best shooter in CJ Fredrick, so perhaps his length will also serve in slowing down Davis’ long-range attack.

Shakeel Moore (6-foot-1 junior) and Cameron Matthews (6-foot-7 junior) round out the typical starting five for the Bulldogs. These two lead Mississippi State in steals per game at 2.1 and 1.7, respectively. Moore contributes 9.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists, though he shoots only 27% from distance on 3.9 attempts per game. Matthews, on the other hand, does most of his damage from inside the arc, averaging 6.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists.

As a team, Mississippi State is a very disruptive defense in its own right. The Bulldogs average roughly 9.5 steals and rank No. 4 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating. This will only be Arkansas’ second game of the season playing a team with a higher defensive efficiency (Alabama is No. 6) than its own (No. 12). Ball security and shot quality will be imperative for the Razorbacks.

“This is a team that loves to create steals,” Musselman said. “It’s a high-gamble team defensively. They jump in passing lanes. They try to control the pace of play.”

What to Expect from Arkansas

Despite struggling to close out tight games on the road in recent weeks, the Razorbacks have been showing steady signs of improvement. Since their second-half collapse against Vanderbilt on Jan. 14, they are 5-2 with the two losses coming by three points in road matchups at Missouri and then-No. 17 Baylor.

In that seven-game stretch, Arkansas is averaging roughly 72 points per game on 50% – 36% – 73% shooting splits while allowing its opponents only 64 points on 39% – 31% – 68% shooting splits. The Hogs are eight points away from a seven-game winning streak. This isn’t to say that moral victories should hold any actual weight, but to demonstrate that the growth in this team is clear.

Now they’re set to add Nick Smith Jr. to the mix as early as Saturday. Smith played in five games for the Razorbacks earlier in the season, but played only three full games. He averaged 19.7 points, 3.0 assists and 2.3 rebounds in those games with 46% – 33% – 82% shooting splits. Expect Smith to be on a heavy restriction in his first game back, likely playing less than 20 minutes.

A major reason for the Hogs’ recent uptick in production has been junior guard Davonte Davis. In his last nine games, Davis is averaging 16.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.2 steals on 48% – 45% – 71% shooting splits.

“I would credit everything to his own work ethic,” Musselman said when asked about Davis’s turnaround. “It’s not often you have a guy that’s playing 40 minutes a night that’s coming in to lift weights at 8 in the morning on a 9 p.m. tipoff. His work ethic has been great, his leadership has been great.”

Sometimes, however, Davis will still force plays that aren’t there, leading to ill-advised shots or bad passes leading to turnovers. Following these situations, he and Musselman both have shown a willingness to put the ball in the hands of Anthony Black, and occasionally Ricky Council IV, to facilitate the offense and let the game come naturally to Davis again. This issue wasn’t prevalent at Kentucky, when Davis took only two 3-pointers and 11 total shots.

“I thought his on-court maturity at Kentucky was at an all-time high level,” Musselman said. “He came off a game where he was 4 of 10 from three (and) he only took two 3s. I thought his shot selection was incredible. We needed him to be a facilitator based on how we wanted to attack Kentucky in pick-and-rolls and he understood his role…and he did it at a high level.”

In its win over Kentucky, Arkansas leaned heavily on an offensive set often referred to as “Horns” that puts the ball handler at the top of the key, both big men on either side of the free throw line, and the remaining wings in the corners. This initial action allowed the Hogs to run an array of ball screens, dribble handoffs and ball reversals that set the offense into motion, thus allowing the guards more room to attack and the big men more opportunities to roll to the rim – an advantage the Hogs have taken more advantage of recently.

Makhel and Makhi Mitchell, specifically, have benefited from this adjustment to the offensive gameplan, but they’ve also been the main benefactors of a change in the rotation. After losing to Baylor, both Mitchell twins started side by side against Texas A&M. At the time, it could’ve been played off as a birthday present, but the two have started together in each of the last three games.

Perhaps against more perimeter-oriented teams like Alabama, Musselman might go back to a smaller lineup featuring Jordan Walsh at the four, but this seems to be the starting frontcourt for the foreseeable future with Walsh soaking up most of the forward minutes off the bench and Jalen Graham providing a scoring spark in spot minutes. Kamani Johnson has played only 14 total minutes in the Hogs’ last six games.

Makhel Mitchell has really shown off his ability to protect the paint in his new role, both as a shot-blocker and a big body to combat elite rebounders like Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky. In his last three games, Makhel has blocked 13 total shots while averaging 9.7 points and 7.0 rebounds in 27 minutes of action.

The Mitchell brothers also held Tshiebwe – the reigning national player of the year – to 7 points and 7 rebounds (only 3 offensive rebounds) on 3 of 6 shooting. They’ll have their hands full again with Smith and McNair coming to town on Saturday.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Mississippi State

During its five-game conference winning streak, Arkansas has seemingly settled into a core rotation. In the last three games, the Razorbacks’ three-headed monster at guard — Anthony Black, Davonte Davis and Ricky Council IV — have averaged more than 38 minutes per game, while Makhel Mitchell and Walsh are averaging roughly 27 minutes per game. Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham round out the rotation with 15.3 and 13.4 minutes, respectively.

How this rotation changes with the return of Smith will be one of the more intriguing storylines of this game. One option would be for the three main guards to play closer to 30 minutes each in a deeper backcourt rotation, while the other most likely option would be for the four forward/centers to lose out on minutes as the Hogs play small-ball more often. We will likely see a mixture of both options with all players seeing a slight hit to their minutes.

Walsh has played at the three more often lately since coming off the bench with some combination of the Mitchell twins and Graham joining him in the frontcourt. The addition of Smith means Black and Council will be sharing even more minutes at that spot while Smith and Davis are also on the court.

The other big question, aside from the minutes allocation, is how each player’s role changes moving forward. Teams often utilize elite offensive players in the sixth-man role to provide a spark off the bench, a role that Ricky Council IV played at Wichita State and could return to once Smith returns to full strength.

Davis has settled into a lead-guard role over the last few weeks, leading to an incredible stretch of production. Black and Council have both shared ball-handling duties at times, as well. Adding Smith back to the mix gives Arkansas four capable ball-handlers – which is certainly a positive, though it raises questions about new roles and responsibilities moving forward.

For the time being, Davis and Black will likely continue being the primary ball handlers for the Hogs since they’ve found a good amount of success recently, allowing Smith to be a threat off the ball as either a floor-spacing spot up shooter or the focal point of offensive plays coming off screens. Eventually, Smith will likely have the ball in his hands more, allowing similar off-ball freedom to Davis and Black – though they might both also excel as cutters attacking the rim to counter Smith’s shooting prowess.

Game Prediction – Arkansas vs Mississippi State

The biggest thing standing between Arkansas and a win on Saturday is its ability to stay focused coming off of a huge win. On paper, the Hogs should have little problem taking down Mississippi State, especially on their home court.

The Mitchell twins will continue their dominance in the paint, slowing down Tolu Smith and forcing other Bulldogs to step up in his place. The return of Smith and the first full-force Bud Walton crowd in weeks will provide an even bigger spark for the Razorbacks, likely drowning any potential of a hangover after the Kentucky win.

Though Arkansas may give up a few runs, it will handle business against Mississippi State, extending its SEC winning streak to six straight games.

Arkansas, 81-69

How to Watch Arkansas vs Mississippi State

Date: Saturday, Feb. 11

Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)

Tipoff Time/TV Schedule: 5 p.m. CT (ESPNU)

ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 78.4% chance to win

Hear what Eric Musselman had to say about the upcoming Arkansas vs Mississippi State game:

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