Heroics from Nick Smith Jr. lifted Arkansas basketball to a dramatic victory Thursday night and snapped a three-game skid, and he was right back at it in the first half of the quarterfinal of the SEC Tournament, as he racked up 13 points to lead Arkansas to a 38-25 halftime lead over Texas A&M.
The Razorbacks were particularly stifling on the defensive end, as they combined for 9 first-half blocks to limit the Aggies to 36.7% shooting from the field. Arkansas’ point guard Anthony Black led the way with 4 blocks, putting the Hogs within one of breaking its all-time SEC Tournament record for rejections, according to @HogStats:
Most blocks by @RazorbackMBB in an SEC Tournament game:
10 vs. Mississippi St. in Atlanta, GA (3/10/2007)
9 vs. Kentucky in New Orleans, LA (3/9/1996)
9 in the 1st half vs. Texas A&M in Nashville, TN tonight
It was quite a performance for two of Arkansas’ 5-star freshmen, especially on a night in which Black has been roughed up after an under cutting by a Texas A&M player (and getting “lightly” knee’d in the face afterward). Later, Black twisted his left ankle.
The half ended with Arkansas basketball’s third McDonald’s All-American, Jordan Walsh, reminding folks he’s something special too:
Unfortunately for the Hogs, the wheels came off in the second half.
Sure, Arkansas ended up with 11 blocks in all, but they also gave up that 13-point lead in the first 10 minutes of the second half as the Aggies stormed back to win the game 67-61.
The Hogs went ice cold from the three-point line, Ricky Council IV was stymied for the second game in a row, the Aggies’ Wade Taylor IV went for 16 points in the second half alone, Texas A&M out-rebounded Arkansas 43-26 and that was all she wrote.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened in a second half,” Eric Musselman said afterward. “We’re young. I mean, halftime speech has been the same for the last eight years. Adjustment has been the same. We’re just a young team.
“Winning and closing games, it’s not easy for teams. Tonight was an example of that again for us.”
The below ran before the tip-off of Arkansas vs Texas A&M
Less than 24 hours after hanging on for a 76-73 win over Auburn, the Razorbacks must shift their focus to a showdown with Texas A&M at 6 p.m. CT Friday in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
Last year, as an 8 seed, Texas A&M made a run to the 2022 SEC Tournament finals and eliminated second-seeded Arkansas from contention along the way. Texas A&M has now earned the No. 2 seed for themselves in this year’s tournament thanks to a 15-3 conference record, finishing behind only Alabama in the SEC.
The Aggies were one of five teams that Arkansas played twice this season, along with No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Kentucky, No. 4 Missouri and No. 14 LSU. Throw in the fact that they also played the No. 5 (Tennessee), No. 6 (Vanderbilt) and No. 7 (Auburn) teams on the road, the Razorbacks had arguably the toughest conference slate in the SEC this season.
The Razorbacks split the season series with Texas A&M, beating the Aggies 81-70 in Fayetteville before losing 62-56 in College Station. The Aggies have also won nine of their last 10 games, including their home victory over the Hogs and a massive home victory over Alabama to cap the regular season.
Texas A&M’s Wade Taylor – recently named a first-team All-SEC selection – has a strong case for best point guard in the SEC this season. He’s averaging 16.3 points and 4.1 assists, including 18.0 points and 3.0 assists in two games against the Hogs, this season.
Devo Davis will likely have his hands full with this defensive assignment to start the game. Barring foul trouble, Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman will likely want his defensive ace hounding Taylor for every possible possession in this win-or-go-home quarterfinal.
Tyrece “Boots” Radford (All-SEC second team) has also been a thorn in the Hogs’ side this season, albeit somewhat inefficiently. Radford put up 17 points on 32% shooting the first time these teams met, followed by a 12-point outing on 36% shooting in mid-February. Still, his versatility and ability to play bigger than his 6-foot-2 frame on both sides of the ball has created mismatch problems for SEC teams all season.
Both Henry Coleman (6-7 forward) and Dexter Dennis (6-5 guard) are averaging double-digit scoring against Arkansas this season, as well as 12.5 and 11.5 points per game, respectively. Radford and Coleman have both been problems on the offensive glass, each averaging exactly 4.0 offensive boards against the Razorbacks.
“They’re physical,” Musselman said. “Their up-front guys, Coleman and (Julius) Marble, rebound the basketball. They score points in the paint. Obviously, they have two star players in Wade Taylor and Tyrece Radford. Those guys, I actually love watching them play. Radford has incredible toughness. In my opinion he might be as versatile as any player in the league because he can guard one through five basically, for sure one through four.
“Then Dennis, he’s a really great complementary guy to the up-front physicality of Marble and Coleman and then the backcourt of Taylor and Radford.”
For Arkansas, the Mitchell twins had been on a baffling run of mediocrity after a very impressive stretch through the middle of SEC play. Prior to the victory over Auburn, Makhi Mitchell was averaging only 1.3 points and 2.0 rebounds on 17% FG shooting in his last three games, while Makhel Mitchell was contributing 1.7 points and 4.3 rebounds on 22% from the field in the same stretch.
Musselman opted to bring both brothers off the bench against Auburn for the first time since facing Ole Miss on Jan. 21, instead starting Kamani Johnson alongside four guards.
“We changed the starting lineup tonight and just talked to the guys about there’s really not a starting group,” Musselman said. “We’re a team. We’re playing in postseason play, which is our playoff, so to speak. You can’t worry about anything but being really supportive of your teammates when you’re not in the game.”
Johnson quickly checked out of the game after playing less than three minutes and picking up two early fouls. Makhi Mitchell checked in with a high level of energy off the bench. The 6-foot-10 transfer put up 12 points and 6 rebounds – four of which were offensive – to go along with 2 assists and 1 steal on 71% shooting, including going 2 of 2 from the free throw line.
The re-emergence of Makhi, and potentially Makhel if given a bigger opportunity, alongside the star Razorback guards could be the difference between an early exit and a legitimate tournament run for the Hogs this season.
In two games against the Aggies, Makhi is averaging 8.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, while Makhel is averaging 6.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and an astonishing 5.5 blocks per game in 20.5 and 25.5 minutes, respectively. Watch for the twins to have another big outing against the undersized Aggies on Friday night.
Anthony Black led Arkansas in points (19) and assists (6) against Auburn to go along with 6 rebounds and 2 steals on an efficient 6 of 10 from the field and 7 of 9 from the free throw line. In two games against Texas A&M this season, Black is averaging 10.0 points and 7.5 assists.
The Aggies don’t have a lot of height on paper – though many of their guards play bigger than their listed height. Watch for Black to exploit mismatches in the paint against guards like Taylor should he get the opportunity.
What to Watch in Arkansas vs Texas A&M
The Razorbacks are now faced with a new challenge that they haven’t truly experienced to this point in the season: playing another high-intensity game less than 24 hours after closing out a massive victory. Sure, Arkansas had back-to-back-to-back games at the Maui Invitational early in the season, but winning those games didn’t go toward a goal any more significant than building up their NCAA Tournament resume.
Now, they’re playing on back-to-back days with the SEC Championship on the line against an extraordinarily physical and resilient Texas A&M team that hasn’t played since its March 4 win against Alabama.
“I mean, I’d love another five days to prepare, but that doesn’t happen,” Musselman said. “Obviously, A&M, they’re going to be more well-rested. We understand that. They played themselves into that position where they’re going to have more rest because of what they did during the regular season.”
Devo Davis played all 40 minutes against Auburn. Anthony Black and Ricky Council IV played 37 and 33 minutes respectively. Perhaps the decision to play Nick Smith Jr. only 27 minutes against the Tigers was somewhat of a strategic move from Musselman to preserve some of his star freshman’s legs – and previously injured knee – for however many more games they may play in Nashville.
Even without the big discrepancy in preparation time, an emotional, down-to-the-wire win like the Razorbacks just notched can be even more draining mentally than playing the full 40 minutes of a typical game.
Arkansas also seemed determined to get at least one win in the SEC Tournament to more firmly secure their place in the NCAA Tournament. Now that they’ve accomplished that task, it will be worth watching whether they still have the same fire to compete for an SEC title, or if the desperation was more geared toward picking up their 20th win of the season to guarantee their spot in the big dance.
How the Hogs respond to the challenge of bouncing back so quickly and maintaining their inspired level of energy and effort will play a huge factor in this matchup.
Game Prediction – Arkansas vs Texas A&M
Arkansas isn’t done fighting just yet. The Razorbacks will come into this matchup with Texas A&M confident in their abilities despite being the 10 seed playing against a 2 seed. And they aren’t the only ones confident, given ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives Arkansas the slight edge despite the disparity in seeding and the fact the Aggies won nearly twice as many regular-season SEC games (15) as Arkansas (8).
Surely it helps that Arkansas has already beaten the Aggies once this season, and lost by only six on the road thanks to a late-game surge from Texas A&M after Arkansas led 53-51 with less than 5 minutes to play.
Riding high on the confidence of finally closing out an important win, the Hogs will again be part of a thrilling, wire-to-wire game against Texas A&M. Smith will lead the way scoring after his reduced workload on Thursday night while Black quietly turns in another well-rounded performance.
Arkansas upsets the Aggies to take a 2-1 series lead on the season and advance to the SEC Tournament semifinals.
How to Watch Arkansas vs Texas A&M
Date: Friday, March 10
Location: Bridgestone Arena (Nashville, Tenn.)
Tipoff Time/TV Schedule: 6 p.m. CT (SEC Network)
ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 54.7% chance to win
Check out highlights from the first two Arkansas vs Texas A&M matchups:
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…