FAYETTEVILLE — In his first two games without a minutes restriction, Nick Smith Jr. is showing Arkansas basketball fans why he’s likely a top-5 pick in next year’s NBA Draft.
The freshman phenom followed up his 16-point performance against San Jose State with an even better outing in a game the No. 9 Razorbacks needed all 22 of his points to beat UNC Greensboro 65-58 at Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas actually trailed for more than 29 minutes and found itself in a 12-point hole late in the first half, but avoided the upset thanks in large part to the play of Smith, who was 6 of 14 from the field and 9 of 11 from the free throw line.
“I thought Nick was really good offensively,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “The 11 FTAs were really important on a night that we struggled. In virtually his second game, to have 22 points is (impressive), especially when we only scored 65… If he doesn’t have a good scoring night, then we probably don’t win tonight.”
Smith did most of his damage in the second half, scoring 16 points after halftime — matching his total from the previous game. He opened the second-half scoring by knocking down a 3-pointer and also had a critical 3-point play with 1:29 remaining that gave Arkansas a seven-point lead.
“I just tried to come out and be aggressive,” Smith said. “I knew we were down, and I knew I wasn’t playing as hard as I could play, and I just wanted to come out and play hard.”
Nearly half of his points came at the free throw line, as he drew seven fouls, and all 11 of his attempts came in the second half. There was a clear change in his mindset after halftime.
“We knew coming in, stats-wise, they weren’t a big shot-blocking team,” Smith said. “I got my shot blocked like three times in the first half, so I had to fix up some stuff and I had to be aggressive. I felt like I was going in the paint too soft. I just tried to make that happen.
Of course, after missing the first six games of the season and playing only six minutes against Troy, Smith is far from a finished product. In fact, he was critical of his own defense in the postgame press conference.
“On-ball defense, one thing as guards, we try to make the job easier for our bigs,” Smith said. “I feel like the bigs do a lot for us. (Makhi Mitchell), he especially does a lot for us. We just have to make it easier, especially coming off ball-screens, coming over the ball-screens and trying not to get hit so much.”
In addition to his 22 points, Smith also notched 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 block and only 2 turnovers. Perhaps the most important statistic for Arkansas basketball, though, was the fact that he played just under 39 minutes.
He was on the bench for a grand total of only 67 seconds and all of that was in the first half. It was easily the most playing time he’s had in an Arkansas uniform.
“I got winded a little bit, but I feel like I held up pretty good,” Smith said. “It’s something that I’ve probably got to get used to here on down. I feel like that’s going to be a big part, just me being in shape, me being in game shape and taking the opportunities I have and try to just go out there and get a win.”
Ugly, Ugly First Half
Not only did the Arkansas basketball team score 99 points in Saturday’s win over San Jose State, but it posted a 139.2 offensive efficiency rating on KenPom. That was its second-best mark of the Eric Musselman era, behind only the glorified scrimmage against Mississippi Valley State to open the 2020-21 season.
To say the Razorbacks took a step back Tuesday night would be a massive understatement. Their offensive efficiency rating against UNC Greensboro was just 88.5 — the worst they’ve posted in a regular-season non-conference game since Musselman’s first season (87.8 vs. Valparaiso and 80.0 vs. Georgia Tech).
“Often times you have one guy have an off night or two guys,” Musselman said. “All the credit goes to UNCG from a defensive standpoint, but we had a lot of guys just not play as well as they have been, and they all kind of did it in one game — not all, but many.”
You didn’t need advanced analytics to know it was an ugly offensive showing, though. Arkansas didn’t reach double digits until a Nick Smith Jr. layup with 5:29 left in the first half and it actually went scoreless for a stretch of 8 minutes and 19 seconds at one point before that.
During that scoring drought, the Razorbacks missed 12 straight shots and committed six turnovers, several of which were unforced. Things were going so poorly that the team’s official Twitter account appeared to hit the portal and started sharing UNC Greensboro highlights.
They did eventually show some signs of life offensively down the stretch in the first half, but still shot only 30% (9 of 30) before halftime. That included going 0 for 8 from beyond the arc — a stark contrast to them hitting 8 of 13 (61.5%) the previous game.
“When you’re making 3s, like we were against San Jose State, and you get good, quality shots and you have some rhythm and you’re feeling good, then you want to encourage guys,” Musselman said. “On nights like tonight, when we clearly struggled from 3 the entire 40 minutes, then you’ve got to adjust your game and you have to understand, ‘Alright, we’re trying to win the game right now and we’ve got to dribble-drive attack. The 3 is not falling.’”
Arkansas did make three 3-pointers in the second half, but they came on 10 attempts, meaning it shot 16.7% (3 of 18) for the game. It’s the third time in nine games that Arkansas has shot under 20% from 3-point range (17.6% vs. San Diego State, 12.5% vs. Fordham).
Incredibly, the Razorbacks are now 12-2 in games they’ve shot under 20% from beyond the arc under Musselman.
“We just tried to scrap it out,” Anthony Black said. “We know not all the games are going to be pretty. We did a lot to lose this game, but we had a chance at the end. We just fought and tried to keep our composure and we came out with a win.”
Trevon Brazile Injury Update
The Razorbacks had to play most of the game without one of their best players, as Trevon Brazile went down with an injury at the 7:30 mark in the first half.
He was fouled on a drive to the basket and fell to the floor clutching his right knee. Trainers eventually had to help him off the court and he didn’t put much, if any, weight on his leg as he went to the locker room.
Although he never returned to the game, Brazile did watch the second half from the end of the bench in sweats. The SEC Network reported that it’s not expected to be a long-term issue, but Eric Musselman told reporters afterward that they still don’t know the extent of the injury.
“There won’t be any update until he gets with the medical people tomorrow and they’re able to MRI it or X-ray it,” Musselman said. “So we won’t know until tomorrow.”
Being without Brazile forced the Razorbacks to adjust on the fly and play some guys out of position at times. The injury also seemed to have an emotional impact on the team.
“Nobody wants that, obviously,” teammate Makhi Mitchell said. “That’s our brother. I was kind of scared, honestly, just because of how he went down and stuff and that’s just my brother.”
Devo Davis Posts Double-Double
Junior guard Davonte Davis notched the first double-double of his career Tuesday night, finishing with 10 points and a career-high 10 rebounds. He had previously grabbed eight rebounds five times, most recently against LSU back in January.
It’s also worth noting that he played the final 8 minutes of the game with four fouls and never picked up a fifth.
“We had him guarding some fours and we played him out of position just because we’re kind of doing stuff on the fly with with (Brazile) getting injured,” Musselman said. “But I thought his energy was phenomenal, crashing the glass at his size, getting 10 boards was awesome. And in transition, he added a different dimension to us as well playing that spot.”
However, it’d be fair to also say that Davis actually notched a triple-double with the third statistic being missed shots. He was 3 of 13 from the floor and at times seemed to be forcing things offensively.
At one point, he had taken more shots than Nick Smith Jr., who played about 10 more minutes than him. He finished one field goal attempt shy of Smith’s 14.
Dominant Performance by Makhi Mitchell
As good as Nick Smith Jr. was, big man Makhi Mitchell might have been the MVP for Arkansas basketball Tuesday night.
He scored 13 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for his first double-double with the Razorbacks, accomplishing the feat he was one rebound shy of last week against Troy.
It was just the second time Mitchell has reached double figures in scoring this season, while his 14 rebounds were the second most he’s ever had, behind only the 18 he had against Bryant last November while still playing at Rhode Island.
To go along with the double-double, Mitchell also blocked 4 shots, came away with 2 steals and dished 1 assist in 32 minutes.
“I thought he was a game-changer,” Musselman said. “I mean, the blocked shots, the protection of the rim… Limiting our opponent tonight in paint points, he gets a ton of the credit for that.”
Mitchell’s scoring and rebounding was certainly critical, but he and Musselman both pointed to what he brought to the defensive end of the floor as arguably his biggest contribution.
“It was pretty big,” Mitchell said. “Coach always puts an emphasis on the big men doing our job and helping out the guards when they sometimes mess up in coverage.”
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- Arkansas entered the game with a goal of 25 free throw attempts. At halftime, it looked like it was going to finish well short of that, as it had just six. However, the Razorbacks made a concerted effort to get to the free throw line in the second half and it resulted in 27 attempts. It’s also worth noting that Arkansas made its final 11 free throws to seal the victory and finish 26 of 33 from the stripe.
- For the first time in an Arkansas uniform, Ricky Council IV was held under 15 points. He finished with about half of that, scoring 8 points on 1-of-7 shooting.
- With two of the Razorbacks’ three 3-pointers, Anthony Black is now 5 of 9 from beyond the arc over the last three games. He’s also shooting 40.7% from deep on the season. “On off hours, you see him in the gym,” Musselman said. “I think he’s shooting the ball with good confidence. I think the biggest thing is his feet are set when he’s taking those threes, and we need him to keep the defense honest.”
- Looking for a spark offensively, Musselman gave Jalen Graham some first-half minutes, but played just 2 minutes and 40 seconds. He also played freshman Derrian Ford for about a minute late in the first half because Black at two fouls.
Arkansas vs UNC Greensboro Highlights
Arkansas vs UNC Greensboro Postgame Pressers
Arkansas vs UNC Greensboro Box Score
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