TULSA, Okla. — Anthony Black introduced himself to the country at the Maui Invitational. Not long afterward, Nick Smith Jr. reminded everyone why he was a projected top-5 draft pick as soon as he returned to action.
That left just one of the talented trio of McDonald’s All-Americans waiting for his breakout game for Arkansas (9-1). It finally happened Saturday afternoon, as Jordan Walsh stepped up and played a key role in the No. 9 Razorbacks’ 88-78 win over Oklahoma at the BOK Center.
After playing a season-low eight minutes his last time out, Walsh — a five-star prospect originally from Desoto, Texas — had 12 points and wreaked significant defensive havoc against the Sooners (7-3).
“I thought Jordan was phenomenal tonight, I really did,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “I thought it was Jordan’s best game thus far and hopefully he continues to grow as a player. I think he felt really comfortable out there today, too.”
The 12 points matched his season high, but unlike against Fordham, all of Walsh’s production on Saturday afternoon came in meaningful minutes with the game still in the balance.
Part of the Razorbacks’ highly touted 2022 signing class, Walsh has had a bit of an up-and-down freshman season through 10 games. He’s consistently been in the starting lineup and shown flashes, but nothing quite like he did against the Sooners.
“It’s a good feeling to see myself do it because now I know that it’s possible,” Walsh said. “It’s not just a special occurrence. Like, it’s possible. So now I can go into the next game with the mentality like, ‘Oh okay, you’ve done this before. You can do it again.’”
It was apparent pretty quickly that Walsh was playing with an extra pep in his step. He forced a couple of early turnovers and looked confident knocking down a 3-pointer from the right wing at the 17:36 mark of the first half.
“It always makes you feel good when you see one go in, so that was good,” Walsh said. “Then Coach Muss was in my ear talking about, ‘Keep shooting it. Don’t stop. We need it.’ So I was pretty confident.”
That shot may have been what caught the attention of Arkansas basketball fans in the building and watching on television, but Musselman indicated he knew that kind of performance was coming based on what he saw that morning at the team hotel.
“We had breakfast at 8:15, and I’m going to assume Jordan was in there about 7:30 stretching with (strength coach Dave Richardson),” Musselman said. “It’s a good sign when somebody is up well before the team breakfast and mentally getting himself ready. He was on the treadmill for a few minutes and then got a really good stretch.”
Walsh was officially credited with just two steals, but used his 7-foot-2 wingspan to force several other turnovers. That was especially apparent on one of those steals, which came on a sideline in-bounds play when he jumped up, knocked the pass toward Arkansas’ basket and threw down just his second dunk of the season.
“He’s super long defensively, but I thought he played within himself,” Oklahoma head coach Porter Moser said. “He’s what we thought he was when we watched him on tape, when I saw him last year, last summer — he’s long, he’s athletic and he’s really improved his skills. He knocked down a couple big shots. I think he competes.”
Making the performance by Walsh even more important was the fact that it came in Arkansas’ first game without Trevon Brazile, who tore his ACL in Tuesday’s win over UNC Greensboro.
Musselman identified Walsh and several other Razorbacks as players who needed to step up in his absence and that seemed to happen against Oklahoma, as Kamani Johnson and Davonte Davis also played solid minutes.
“It’s not just going to be one guy, but certainly Jordan stepped up,” Musselman said. “I thought Kamani came in and gave us a really, really good lift off the bench from an energy standpoint. Devo’s defense was really outstanding, especially in the second half.”
1-2 Punch for Arkansas Basketball
As good as Jordan Walsh was, it was the dynamic scoring duo of Ricky Council IV and Nick Smith Jr. who contributed more than half of Arkansas’ points.
Council finished with 26 points on 10 of 16 points, while Smith had 21 points on 8 of 16 shots.
“Obviously those guys got high-volume field goals attempted, but I thought their shot selection was really good,” Musselman said. “We went to a little bit more isolation, a little bit more matchup stuff than maybe we have in some other games. I thought both those guys were phenomenal offensively.”
It was a classic “progression to the mean” performance by Council, who was coming off his worst scoring output of the year against UNC Greensboro. He had just 8 points on 1 of 7 shooting Tuesday night after scoring at least 15 points in each of the first eight games.
Although he said on Saturday’s postgame radio show that he was “a little under the weather” in that game, Council pointed to his approach against the Sooners as the key to the bounce-back outing — which included back-to-back possessions with a 3-pointer and a three-point play that put Arkansas up for good late in the first half.
“I feel like tonight I was just letting the game come to me,” Council said. “Obviously I had a slow game, a bad game, last game, whatever you want to call it. I just let it come to me, and when I hit the 3 and and-one, it had me going the rest of the game for real.”
Council also threw down yet another reverse dunk, this one coming on an alley oop from Smith.
There’s a good chance Smith would have finished with more than 21, but he appeared to tweak his leg with 5:32 remaining. He immediately jogged to the locker room and came in and out several times before rejoining the team’s huddle during the final media timeout. He never returned to the floor, instead watching the final minutes of the game while standing with the trainer behind the bench.
Musselman said he was being evaluated by the doctor and trainer, but he had no update during the postgame press conference.
“There was no alarm when I came in the locker room, but they’ll look at him and monitor him and we’ll see, but I don’t have any (update),” Musselman said.
Turning It Up on Defense
Oklahoma opened about as hot as it possibly could, making 11 of its first 13 shots. It was still shooting over 75% from the floor more than 12 minutes into the game.
However, the Sooners’ lead was never more than nine points – a margin they hit at the 11:47 mark of the first half. That kind of shooting likely wasn’t sustainable, but Arkansas knew it had to lock in defensively.
“It was really tight, it was really close, but we knew that we weren’t even playing our best in the first half,” Jordan Walsh said. “We knew once we started turning it up on defense, then the lead we were going to get was going to be expanded and it was going to go from, ‘Okay, we’re down 9, down 11, whatever it is’ to ‘We’re up 11, up 9’ and that’s what happened.”
The Razorbacks managed to regain the lead late in the half thanks to outscoring Oklahoma 10-2 over the final 2:07. That carried over into the second half, with Oklahoma coach Porter Moser pointing to Arkansas’ defense as the main reason behind it pulling away.
Four critical turnovers led to points that stretched the Razorbacks’ lead to double digits and the Sooners never fully recovered.
“If you look at the timeline, it was their defensive pressure: Turnover, basket. Turnover, basket. Turnover, basket,” Moser said. “They capitalized and that’s that’s what they do. We talked about it – taking care of the ball. Because they turn them into baskets with their extreme athletic ability.”
One key to the increased success of Arkansas’ defense was a change it made at halftime, as Eric Musselman said he switched up its pick-and-roll coverage.
“We really haven’t done much switching or what we call touch switch where you don’t switch unless there’s contact,” Musselman said. “For a team that’s only played that Plan B coverage in practice, I thought they executed it really, really well because I was concerned.”
Makhi Mitchell’s Footwork
Coming off a 13-point, 14-rebound double-double in which he also had 4 blocks and 2 steals against UNC Greensboro, Makhi Mitchell came up big again on Saturday afternoon.
His stats weren’t quite as impressive — 10 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 steal — but this time he also added four assists, two of which were perfectly placed passes on cuts by Nick Smith Jr.
Mitchell also put on a clinic down low with his footwork and made things happen with the ball in his hands.
“They put a little extra attention on the guards, probably for good reason,” Musselman said. “We wanted to short roll — you’re 2-3 steps past where the screen is set but you’re not rim-rolling — and be a little bit of a playmaker. I think the most important thing, I don’t know if he had a turnover, but four assists with limited turnovers, as well.”
What doesn’t show up in the box score, beyond the two blocks and one steal, though, was the defense Mitchell played on Tanner Groves. The big man scored 16 points on the Razorbacks last year, but was limited to just six points before fouling out this time around.
“To start the second half, it looked like maybe Groves was going to go down low and start crab-dribbling and start using his pump fakes and his spins,” Musselman said. “I thought Makhi did a great job of holding his ground and then challenging shots in the post.”
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
~Last season, Oklahoma shot a scorching 13 of 22 from beyond the arc in its 22-point win over Arkansas in Tulsa. It started Saturday’s game 4 of 5, but then missed its next six attempts and went nearly 24 minutes of game time without making one. “I think just crowding them, making them floor it,” Musselman said of the key to turning it around. “Again, there was some dribble-drives that we kind of gave up to take away the perimeter 3.”
~Arizona State transfer Jalen Graham played 2 minutes and 46 seconds in the first half of the game and had 1 point on 1 of 2 free throw shooting, 1 rebound, 1 turnover and 1 steal. He was minus-2 in that time, meaning he is now minus-7 in the 15 minutes and 56 seconds he’s played when Arkansas either trailed or led by 10 or less.
Arkansas vs Oklahoma Highlights
Arkansas vs Oklahoma Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Oklahoma Box Score
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