Jalen Graham’s Next Big Challenge for Arkansas + Other Insights from Florida Win

Jalen Graham, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Florida
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

FAYETTEVILLE — Perhaps no Arkansas basketball player has been more of an enigma this season than Jalen Graham.

Just a few days after playing sparingly in a loss at Texas A&M, the Arizona State transfer played a key role in the Razorbacks blowing out Florida 84-65 inside Bud Walton Arena on Saturday.

Graham poured in a career-high 26 points on 12 of 15 shooting in just 27 minutes off the bench, taking advantage of the Colin Castleton-less Gators. It easily surpassed his previous high of 19 points, which he set against USC while with the Sun Devils last February. His high with the Razorbacks was 16 points, which he set against UNC Asheville and matched against Alabama and South Carolina.

“When I first got in there, I just felt like I could score off the rip against both their bigs, especially when they put their smaller, littler guard,” Graham said. “I was like, ‘Yeah.’ I just felt like I could get to my spots and rise up and just continue to be confident and just put the ball in the rim.”

It didn’t take long for Graham to figure out that he was faster and quicker than Florida’s 6-foot-11, 300-pound big man, Jason Jitoboh. It was something he saw on film and quickly realized he could exploit.

After he played only five minutes against the Aggies, head coach Eric Musselman said he knew Graham would have a bigger role against Florida when Castleton, a likely first-team All-SEC big man, went down with a broken hand on Wednesday.

There was a significant drop off from the nation’s fourth-leading shot blocker to Jitoboh, sophomore Alex Fudge (6-foot-9, 200 pounds) and freshman Aleks Szymczyk (6-foot-10, 240).

“I didn’t know what he was going to do, but we were going to go to him early, which is what we did,” Musselman said. “We threw it in there and a lot of it was matchups. Fudge is a younger player, and (Szymczyk) has not played much and (Jitoboh), we just felt like Jalen’s footwork would be a problem for them.”

The Razorbacks struggled to score the ball early on, making just two of their first nine shots and scoring only six points the first seven minutes of the game. That’s when Graham checked in and promptly made three of Arkansas’ next four buckets.

He ended up scoring 14 points on 6 of 7 shooting in the first half and even went 2 of 2 on his lone trip to the free throw line — something he had done just once before this season. He was an abysmal 8 of 24 (33.3%) entering the game, but went 2 of 3 at the stripe Saturday.

“We didn’t do a good enough job forcing him to catch off the block,” Florida basketball coach Todd Golden said. “And there was not much resistance at the rim and he kind of dictated what he wanted to do down there.”

The focus for Graham now shifts to whether or not he can put together back-to-back solid games for the Razorbacks — something he’s yet to accomplish.

In the games immediately following his previous five double-figure scoring performances, Graham failed to score three times and was held to just 2 points in the other two. Of course, he averaged only 5.2 minutes in those games.

Matchups have been a contributing factor to Graham’s inconsistent minutes this season, but so has doing things other than scoring — whether that be rebounding, defending, knocking down free throws or taking better care of the ball.

He appeared to do those things against Florida, grabbing seven rebounds — his second most of the season — and blocking two shots while committing only two turnovers, both of which came with the game already in hand midway through the second half.

“He’s got a great attitude, too,” Musselman said. “We just need him to rebound because in this league, every night the rebounding is so, so vital. But he’s done a great job working. I’ve been on him about the free throws pretty hard and I thought he did a good job tonight converting the ones he had.”

The Razorbacks would probably like to see him finally put together back-to-back productive games when Georgia visits Tuesday.

“For me, I’ve just gotta keep getting in the gym,” Graham said when specifically asked about the key to doing so. “Honestly, just be confident, just keep going. I’m not expecting another 26-point night or doing this again. I just want to be an offensive threat and help my team win, so as long as I can just continue do that, I’ll be happy.”

Knock-Out Blow

Arkansas used an 11-0 run to pull away from Florida in the first half, but still led by only six at the break. It was a smaller lead than it had on Wednesday at Texas A&M, when it saw a nine-point lead completely erased before the first media timeout of the second half.

The Razorbacks made sure that didn’t happen again Saturday when it opened the second half on a 17-2 run. Less than six minutes after halftime, their lead had ballooned to 21. It eventually climbed to 25 midway through the half before settling at a 19-point margin.

“I just thought our defense was elite to start the second half and then we were able to get out in transition a little bit,” Musselman said. “I thought that the easy baskets in transition certainly helps us tremendously and then defensively, we didn’t give up one back-door.”

Arkansas made 11 of its first 15 shots after halftime, but it was what it did on the other end — as Musselman said — that sparked the blowout.

“(We) came out with a lot of energy, and we’re scoring, but most importantly getting stops,” Council said. “As long as we’re getting stops and preventing teams from shooting and hitting 3s, then it’s gonna be hard for any team to beat us.”

Increased Role for Nick Smith Jr

After turning it over twice and having his lone shot blocked at Texas A&M, Nick Smith Jr returned to the bench and didn’t return. He played just four minutes, none of which were in the second half of the six-point loss.

In his third game back, the freshman phenom got the start and looked much more comfortable on the floor. Even though he was just 4 of 12 from the floor and missed all four of his 3-pointers, Smith still scored 10 points in 32 minutes.

“There’s a reason why Major League Baseball (teams), when guys are out extended periods of time, (they) send them down to the minor leagues to get their rhythm and their timing,” Musselman said. “With a basketball team and a program that does not go live and hasn’t gone live because we want to be fresh in March, it’s hard for Nick to play three-on-three post-practice and get rhythm.

“So really happy that he got the minutes that he got tonight. Happy how his teammates responded with him, and he gives us a little bit of an edge. He’s competitive. He’s verbal. I think that helps us tremendously.”

Perhaps the two biggest plays Smith made against Florida came in the first half, when he pushed the pace and took it to the basket. He finished through contact both times and completed the old-fashioned three-point play by knocking down the free throw.

“I don’t think it was ever a mesh problem, he just had to get back in the flow,” Council said. “I mean, he missed like two months. If anybody missed two months, it would be the same or even worse. … He definitely looked better out there tonight. He got two and-ones early, brought a lot of energy to the crowd and us.”

Up Next for Arkansas Basketball

Arkansas will be back in Bud Walton Arena again Tuesday night, welcoming Georgia to town for an 8 p.m. CT tipoff. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.

The Bulldogs have struggled much of the season, but did win back-to-back home wins over Kentucky and LSU before being stopped in their tracks Saturday. Playing No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Bulldogs were annihilated 108-59. That dropped them to 1-6 in road SEC games this year.

Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits

  • For just the second time this season, and first time in SEC play, Makhi Mitchell notched a double-double for the Razorbacks. He finished with 10 points on 5 of 7 shooting and 10 rebounds, plus added 2 blocks, an assist and a steal. His other double-double came against UNC Greensboro on Dec. 6, when he had 13 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 steals and an assist. “Makhi did a phenomenal job as a rim roller,” Musselman said. “He did a great job being in the dunker spot and having his hands ready to catch and flush on any dump off passes.”
  • After they knocked down 10 of 17 from beyond the arc against Ole Miss, and playing without Colin Castleton, Musselman emphasized limiting the Gators from 3-point range and his team responded by holding them to just 4 of 21 (19.0%) from deep, with two made by freshman big man Aleks Szymczyk when the game was already in hand. “I made the decision that (Szymczyk), we were not really gonna guard out there because of lack of experience,” Musselman said. “So, in reality, our team, the guys in the locker room gave up two and I gave up two.”
  • The Razorbacks outscored Florida 52-36 in the paint and also 45-25 in bench production. They were also plus-15 on the boards, further illustrating how dominant of a victory it was.
  • Several recent Arkansas basketball standouts were in the building because the NBA is on its All-Star break. Jaylin Williams, Isaiah Joe, Justin Smith and Stanley Umude received a loud ovation from the crowd when they were recognized at the first media timeout of the second half.

Arkansas vs Florida Highlights

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Arkansas vs Florida Postgame Interviews

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Arkansas vs Florida Box Score


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