FAYETTEVILLE — Mark it down: Feb. 21, 2023 — the day Nick Smith Jr. arrived.
In a moment Arkansas basketball fans have been waiting for all season, the freshman phenom poured in 26 points and helped the Razorbacks crush Georgia 97-65 inside Bud Walton Arena on Tuesday.
Needing a win to remain on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, Arkansas was never in danger. It took less than nine minutes to build a double-digit cushion and then the Razorbacks led by more than 20 for all but 20 seconds in the second half.
For Smith, specifically, it was a breakout performance in his fourth game back after missing 13 straight for “right knee management.”
“My guys pushed me when I came back, when I first practiced, to get my flow back and try to just learn the new plays and stuff,” Smith said. “They did a good job with me, just being patient with me and see what happens.”
Although he showed some glimpses of his potential as a lottery pick in the five non-conference games he play and also flashed since returning the second time, such as his explosiveness in a pair of three-point plays against Florida, none of it was quite like what he did Tuesday night.
After shooting just 6 of 20 from the floor and scoring a grand total of 15 points in about 53 minutes of action over his first three games back, Smith was an efficient 9 of 14 shooting against the Bulldogs, resulting in a career-high 26 points in 29 minutes.
“We’re a lot different with Nick back, obviously,” teammate Anthony Black said. “He’s one of the best scorers in the country, so the spacing on offense helps out a lot with Nick on the court, ‘cause you can’t really leave a guy like Nick.”
As much as head coach Eric Musselman praised him for his defense, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Smith’s performance was his 3-point shooting. He knocked down 5 of 8 from beyond the arc, the most by an Arkansas player since Stanley Umude knocked down six against Missouri a year ago.
That was something the Razorbacks expected to get from Smith this year, but he had been shooting only 25% (7 of 28) in his limited action, including 1 of 8 since his return.
“I mean, make or miss, I’m gonna shoot the same shot,” Smith said. “I work on it each and every day, all day, so why not shoot it, you know?”
Considering his potential, it was probably only a matter of time before he exploded in a game like this and Musselman saw it coming based on the work he’s put in over the last few weeks. It also made his biblical tweet from the day before seem almost prophetic.
“He’s been coming to Bud Walton on his own at night,” Musselman said. “I think that’s how you get your rhythm back. You can’t just rely on practice time, because we’ve can’t practice just for Nick when we’ve got guys like (Black) and Ricky (Council) and those guys that have been practicing and grinding, so it was really important for Nick to take it on himself to get the extra reps, which he has been doing for sure.”
Even beyond what the box score said about Smith, Musselman said he impacted the game in several other unquantifiable ways.
His presence on the floor impacted the Razorbacks’ spacing, which in turn helped them commit a season-low five turnovers — when the previous low was nine against Creighton and Oklahoma.
Because he runs so hard, Smith helped Arkansas in its transition game and push the pace, resulting in 97 points — their second-highest total of the year, behind only the 99 points against San Jose State on Dec. 3. (That was the only time Smith and Trevon Brazile played a full game together.)
Having a guy like Smith available and playing well made it easier for Musselman substitute more freely. The guard trio of Black, Ricky Council IV and Davonte Davis had been consistently playing 37-plus minutes, but none of them played more than 31 on Tuesday.
Speaking to reporters for the first time since he return, Smith downplayed his own performance and said he was only happy that Arkansas came out with a win.
However, it’s hard to imagine he didn’t take at least some joy in disproving the section of the fan base that had seemingly turned against him during his absence — the vocal minority that felt he never intended to play for the Razorbacks or that he was overrated. Plus, grandma was in the building for Tuesday’s game.
Ricky Council IV as the Sixth Man
Despite being the Razorbacks’ leading scorer this season, Ricky Council IV has shifted to coming off the bench since Nick Smith Jr was reinserted into the starting lineup against Florida.
He had started 25 of the first 26 games of the season, but this is not a new role for him. After all, Council was the Sixth Man of the Year in the American Athletic Conference at Wichita State last season.
The move seems to have reinvigorated him. After scoring just 19 total points and shooting 4 of 18 (22.2%) in 37 and 36 minutes in his last two starts, Council has scored 37 total points on a much more efficient 15-of-26 (57.7%) shooting despite seeing his playing time drop to 32 and 28 minutes off the bench.
That includes a 22-point effort against the Bulldogs in which he shot 3 of 6 from beyond the arc, matching his season high for 3-pointers which he previously set against Louisville and Vanderbilt.
“I think we saw that a couple years ago with JD Notae — the importance of a guy that can come in if you’re not scoring the ball,” Musselman said. “It changes the way people have to defend us as well because he’s such a good isolation player. He’s such a good free-throw attempt player.
“So, it changes who we are when he’s making perimeter shots to go along with his transition dunks and transition points and free throws attempted.”
His final stat line may not jump off the page, but Davonte Davis played a key role in Arkansas basketball blowing out Georgia.
The junior guard posted a team-best plus-30 in 28 minutes despite having only 4 points, 3 assists and 1 rebound. He also committed two turnovers and didn’t notch a steal.
However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. As he has been all year, Davis was tasked with defending the Bulldogs’ top player, Terry Roberts. He entered the game averaging 14.2 points, but managed just 4 on Tuesday. He shot only 2 of 9 from the floor and missed all three of his 3-pointers.
Musselman said Davis actually requested video of every shot Roberts has made this season in preparation for the matchup, so he wasn’t too surprised by the performance. He’s been doing it since his freshman year, when he shut down Texas Tech’s Mac McClung in the NCAA Tournament.
“Devo has just been absolutely incredible — not just tonight, not just this year,” Musselman said. “He continues to be able to take a star player and minimize the effectiveness of that particular player.”
What is so impressive about Davis continuing to defend at such a high level is he hasn’t let his production on the other end of the floor have any impact on it, showing a level of maturity you’d hope for from a veteran player.
After a nine-game stretch in which he averaged 16.4 points and shot 44.7% from deep, his role on offense has changed since the return of Nick Smith Jr. He did have a wildly inefficient performance against Mississippi State (2 of 12 shooting) and really struggled down the stretch against Texas A&M, but seems to have settled into his new role the last two games.
Davis took just one shot and didn’t score in 23 minutes against Florida and followed it up with a 2-of-2 performance in 28 minutes against Georgia. Not only has his playing time dipped, but he’s taken only three shots in the last two games combined.
“I think he’s (doing) what he’s done all year for us: He’s providing what we need,” Musselman said. “We needed him to really be offensively aggressive. His shot selection the last two games has been phenomenal. He’s having fun out there. This is a team right now that chemistry-wise on the court, this is as good as we’ve been from a chemistry standpoint.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
The brutal three-game stretch to end the regular season for Arkansas basketball is finally here. The Razorbacks travel to Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday for a showdown with No. 2 Alabama.
Fresh off a 49-point shellacking of Georgia, the Crimson Tide hit the road for a matchup with South Carolina on Wednesday before returning home to host the Razorbacks for a 1 p.m. CT tipoff Saturday that will be televised on ESPN2.
It will be a rematch from earlier in the season, when Alabama pulled away late for an 84-69 win inside Bud Walton Arena.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- The Razorbacks have a goal of making at least 200 passes in every game, but easily shot past that with 266 against Georgia. Eric Musselman said it was the most he’s ever had in a game. Making it even more impressive is that they committed a season-low five turnovers.
- For the second time in three games, Anthony Black flirted with a double-double by matching his season high with 8 assists. In addition to doing it against Georgia and Texas A&M, he also hit that mark against Ole Miss. “He’s got such great court vision, and he’s so unselfish,” Musselman said. “The 266 passes, a lot of them are him being the trigger guy, or the initial advance pass guy.”
- On the other end of the floor, Black has become one of Arkansas’ most active defenders. With two against the Bulldogs, he’s now had multiple steals in five straight games and is averaging 2.7 over his last 10. He was averaging just 1.6 through the first 18 games and only 1.1 over the previous 11 games before this current stretch. “When he gets low defensively, he’s got such great hands, such great anticipation and I think you’re seeing his growth as a defender right before our eyes,” Musselman said. “He is playing much improved defensively here down the stretch and a lot of his has to do with getting low and picking up the ball earlier than he was.”
- The Razorbacks shot 63.8% (37 of 58) from the floor as a team, which breaks the school record for an SEC game that they previously broke by shooting 62.7% at Kentucky earlier this season. Included in that was a season-high 11 three-pointers, surpassing the previous high of eight.
- Arkansas has won its last two games by a combined margin of 52 points, beating Florida by 19 and Georgia by 32. On the flip side, the Bulldogs have lost their last two games by a combined margin of 81 points, losing to Alabama by 49 and Arkansas by 32.
- The Razorbacks have scored at least 97 points in their last three games against Georgia, all of which have been wins under Eric Musselman. They’ve won those games by an average of 29.3 points.
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