It’s late February and we still have no idea how good this Arkansas basketball team can be.
To say this season hasn’t gone according to plan is an understatement, and while the Hogs won’t have the regular season record anyone expected when the season began, postseason dreams are still very much alive.
The return of Nick Smith Jr. and the abilities he put on display in Arkansas’ dominant wins over Florida and Georgia means the Razorbacks could be operating at an extremely high level from here on out. Sure, Georgia and Florida without Colin Castleton are not quite the same challenge as playing the teams at the top of the SEC, but winning both games by a combined 51 points is a statement. Smith scoring 26 points against the Bulldogs is also a statement.
Impact of Nick Smith Jr
This is an incredible development for a team that began the season with Final Four aspirations only to find itself on Bubble Watch halfway through SEC play. More often than not, Arkansas struggled offensively after Smith left the lineup. There were bright spots – most notably the Hogs’ blowout of Kentucky at Rupp Arena when they shot over 62% from the field – but there were several games in which Arkansas failed to score 70 points.
They were very fortunate to hold on to beat South Carolina just a few days before the explosion in Lexington. In two games against maybe the worst LSU team in recent memory, the team never scored more than 60 points (they won the game in Fayetteville by 20 points, but still) and the loss in the SEC opener in Baton Rouge is the worst mark on Arkansas’ resume.
Arkansas never seemed comfortable in Smith’s first couple of games back, losing a disappointing home game to Mississippi State and on the road at Texas A&M. Smith played only four first-half minutes against the Aggies and committed two turnovers without scoring. But when the Hogs returned to Fayetteville, they played well enough with Smith in the starting lineup to put the college basketball world on alert and give fans reason to hope this season might possibly still deliver on some of the hype that has preceded it for over a year.
If Smith continues to play at the high level we saw against Georgia, he’ll provide the Razorbacks with a dynamic scorer that the Hogs have largely lacked in SEC play. He’s capable of scoring at all three levels, which will force opposing defenses to play Arkansas differently. They won’t be able to pack the interior and force the Hogs to shoot long jumpers – well, at least not as easily. If defenses are forced to respect the team’s shooting ability, they’ll have to spread out and allow the Hogs more freedom to move around the court, which should result in more high-percentage shots.
The early results are tantalizing. Arkansas scored 84 and 97 points in the two games with Smith in the starting lineup. In his six starts this season, Smith has scored at least 21 points three times.
Looking Ahead for Arkansas Basketball
Of course, it’s one thing to play that way in Bud Walton Arena against teams who may end up playing on Wednesday night at the SEC Tournament when the bottom of the league kicks off the event, or “Wednesday Night Sadness” as I like to say. It’s another thing to score those kinds of points on the road in Tuscaloosa or Knoxville, or in the neutral settings of the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.
The Razorbacks and Smith both still have plenty to prove. Arkansas’ upcoming road games against Alabama and Tennessee may be the toughest pair of games on Arkansas’ regular-season schedule. The games represent opportunities to move up seed lines in the NCAA Tournament bracket. Most projections seem to have the Hogs in a dreaded 8/9 game if the tournament started today. Winning either of the upcoming two games could move the Hogs to a higher seed and give them a better chance of making the tournament’s second weekend for a third straight year.
Arkansas now has the potential to be a very interesting case for the NCAA Selection Committee. While it’s doubtful Arkansas gets much, if any, extra “credit” in seeding due to the perception that Smith makes them better than their record, it seems likely whichever higher seed needs to beat Arkansas to make the Sweet 16 will feel like they’ve gotten hosed in the bracket.
It’s not a stretch to look at the close losses on Arkansas’ resume – the Hogs have lost four games by three points – and think those are probably all wins if Smith plays at 100%, and if Arkansas won any of those games, it would be a higher seed in the tournament. That obviously doesn’t mean the Razorbacks are guaranteed to win anything in March, but it’s a good bet that they’ll be a trendy upset pick.
For now, Arkansas and Smith have a chance to show the college basketball world how good they can be. Alabama has been ridiculously dominant at home this season. Mississippi State is the only SEC team to be competitive with the Tide in their home arena, losing by just three points. Every other conference game at Coleman Coliseum has been a 20+ point blowout, including three wins by more than 40. Arkansas has nothing to lose in this game. It’s purely an opportunity. Tennessee has struggled a bit as of late despite beating Alabama in Knoxville, but that will also be a great chance for Arkansas to prove itself against a team that’s near the top of the advanced metrics rankings.
There have been times this season when it felt like this year’s team was doomed. It felt like fans were destined to look back on this season as what might have been if injuries to Smith and Trevon Brazile hadn’t derailed everything. Even without them, Arkansas had a great chance to make the NCAA Tournament. With Smith back at full strength, the Razorbacks have a chance to make another deep run.
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