FAYETTEVILLE — Cheers from the Bud Walton Arena crowd rose to a crescendo as Nick Smith Jr. took off his warmup gear, jogged down to the scorer’s table and checked into Monday’s game.
Smith entered the game at the 14:08 mark in the first half, missed both of the shots he took and grabbed a rebound before checking out at the 8:04 mark. Despite the lackluster debut, head coach Eric Musselman sounded genuinely proud of him in his postgame press conference.
“I knew the first game — it could be an NBA All-Star [Game] — it’s not an easy situation for a player,” Musselman said. “You’re talking about both teams being 6, 7 games in while a player has been slowly progressing, and then the crowd gives him somewhat of a standing ovation or whatever because they’re excited for him. It’s not an easy situation for a young man to be in.”
A knee injury that the Razorbacks are being extra cautious with kept Smith out of the first six games of the regular season. His last live action came in the exhibition loss at Texas almost exactly a month earlier.
The offense didn’t look quite as smooth with him in the game as it did the last several games, but that’s to be expected considering he hasn’t had the same time to mesh with the team as the rest of his teammates. It also looked like Smith was rusty or experienced some first-game jitters, as his first shot attempt — a 3 from the wing — didn’t touch the rim.
There isn’t much concern about how he performed, though, because the Razorbacks know what they have — a special player who could be one of the first five players taken in the 2023 NBA Draft.
“He hasn’t played the first couple of regular-season games, but we played with him all in Spain, play with him in practice every day, so it’s nothing new,” Ricky Council IV said. “He’s going to be back. First game, that’s expected, so he’s going to be fine.”
Even though Smith was on a minutes restriction, Musselman admitted there was some temptation to put him back in the game during the second half, especially because Arkansas was having a hard time putting Troy away.
The Razorbacks actually trailed with less than six minutes remaining before going on a 17-0 run that essentially sealed the victory.
“I thought about it probably four or five times about putting Nick back in — maybe more than four or five times — and I just thought it was completely unfair once we got past the 12-minute mark,” Musselman said. “I just did not think it was fair to any player. If Gilbert Arenas was sitting there, I wouldn’t have. You just don’t do that to a player in a one-point game when he’s sat that long.”
Musselman said the best part about getting Smith some action Monday is the fact that the Razorbacks now have four straight days of practice before their next game, which is Saturday against San Jose State. Arkansas also hosts UNC-Greensboro next Tuesday, giving him three home games to work his way back before the neutral-site matchup with Oklahoma in Tulsa on Dec. 10.
It’s unknown whether or not Smith will remain on a minutes restriction in those games or how much his playing time could be increased moving forward, as Musselman said he hadn’t met with the doctors about that yet, but the thought is even just getting his feet wet with six minutes Monday will prove beneficial for him down the road.
“He probably could have waited, quite frankly, to put on the uniform until Saturday, but he wants to be a great teammate and he wants to contribute,” Musselman said. “So now Game 1’s out of the way, which I think is a good thing because I kind of anticipated that it’s not easy for a player to jump in like that.”
Ricky Council Takes Over
The main driving force behind Arkansas’ aforementioned 17-0 run that put the game away was Ricky Council IV. The Wichita State transfer scored 11 of those 17 points and punctuated the win with an impressive dunk in the final minute of the game.
As impressive as the dunk was, the dagger came earlier in the form of an extremely deep 3-pointer as the shot clock wound down. The impact of that shot was felt more than the scoreboard indicated — even though it was noticeable there, too, because Arkansas’ lead went from one to four with about 4.5 minutes remaining.
“I thought that it took spirit away from Troy,” Musselman said. “If I had to just say where was a breaking point from a spirit standpoint, (that would be it) because they came in with a really good game plan. They kept the ball in front of them. That was a momentum-changing shot.”
That shot came after Council made back-to-back tough layups that put the Razorbacks up for good with the 11th and final lead change of the night. He later added another couple of jumpers and the dunk, giving him 19 second-half points en route to a season-high 27 points on 12 of 18 shooting.
“I just wanted to get downhill because I was shooting too many threes,” Council said. “I remember I think (before) the last three I took (when) I actually hit one, Coach was like, ‘Rack the ball, rack the ball,’ so I was like, ‘All right.’ I started driving and if they step up, I’m going to dish it. If not, I’m going to finish. That just led to me getting going.”
Now seven games into the season, Council has been the leading or second-leading scorer in every game for the Razorbacks and finished with at least 15 points in all of them. He’s so far averaging 20.1 points, which would place him at No. 2 all-time in career points per game for Arkansas basketball if he stays just one year.
“Ricky in Maui became our go-to guy,” Musselman said. “He’s really tough to stop going to the basket, and then he draws free throws attempted, and then his mid-range pull-up game, he rises over people.”
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence and he’s playing with a lot of energy and he’s playing with a lot of joy. Even my daughter, she’s not really into basketball, but she even said the other night how fun it looks like Ricky has playing the game.”
Devo Davis Update
Arkansas was without veteran guard Davonte Davis on Monday. The announcement came about 30 minutes prior to tipoff against Troy.
“Davonte Davis is taking some time away from basketball,” Eric Musselman said in a statement. “He has our full support during this time.”
Davis also didn’t play in the second half of the Razorbacks’ win over San Diego State, their last game at the Maui Invitational.
When pressed for further information after the game, Musselman didn’t reveal much.
“I think we’re just respecting Devo’s privacy,” Musselman said. “Our thoughts are with him, and that’s where it is right now.”
He was Arkansas’ fourth-leading scorer over the first six games, averaging 8.5 points on 35.8% shooting. He was also third on the team with 16 assists to only nine turnovers in 31.3 minutes per game.
Mitchell Keeps Arkansas in it Early
In their first game back from the Maui Invitational, the Razorbacks came out sloppy on the offensive end. Luckily for them, big man Makhi Mitchell was there to clean things up.
The Rhode Island transfer scored Arkansas’ first six points and nearly had a double-double by halftime with 10 points and 9 rebounds. Despite playing 13 minutes in the second half, Mitchell never did pick up that 10th rebound, but he was still productive and finished with 14 points and 3 blocked shots.
“It just kind of came to me,” Mitchell said. “I was in the right spot at the right time. Coach has been emphasizing that he needs more out of the bigs as far as blocking shots and everything on the defensive end, so I just did my job tonight.”
It may have gone unnoticed by some, but Mitchell was part of a critical stretch in the middle of the second half. Soon after checking back in the game, he managed to recover and block a layup that would have given Troy the lead.
Instead, the ball ended up in Anthony Black’s hands and he took it the other way for an Arkansas bucket. On the next defensive possession, Mitchell played a role in forcing a turnover that led to a fast break layup by Ricky Council IV and put the Razorbacks up by five.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- Freshman Barry Dunning Jr. made his first career start in place of Davonte Davis. However, he had an early turnover and was replaced by Trevon Brazile just 75 seconds into the game.
- For the fourth straight game, freshman Anthony Black scored in double figures, finishing with 14 points on 5 of 8 shooting, including 2 of 4 from beyond the arc. He also grabbed a career-high 8 rebounds, dished 3 assists, notched 2 steals and blocked 1 shot while playing all 40 minutes.
- Troy sophomore guard Duke Miles did not play in the game. He came in as the Trojans’ leading scorer at 14.0 points per game despite coming off the bench in all six of his appearances.
- The Trojans also lost sophomore forward Nate Tshimanga late in the first half when he appeared to hit his head on the floor. He actually remained on the bench when his teammates went to the locker room for halftime and was eventually taken off on a stretcher. The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he acknowledged the fans by waving, blowing them kisses and making a heart with his hands.
Arkansas vs Troy Highlights
Postgame Press Conferences – Arkansas vs Troy
Postgame Box Score – Arkansas vs Troy
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