FAYETTEVILLE — On the night the Arkansas basketball team took the floor in a real game for the first time this season, most of the attention surrounded the player who didn’t play.
Star freshman Nick Smith Jr., the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2022 class on 247Sports, was held out for precautionary reasons as he deals with a knee injury. The UA revealed the news in a press release less than four hours before the Razorbacks’ 76-58 win over North Dakota State.
Reporters pressed head coach Eric Musselman for additional details three separate times in his postgame interview, but he played coy and didn’t give much more insight.
“We’ll get ready for the next game — that’s all we can do, is continue to try to get better,” Musselman said. “Obviously roles were really shuffled in a short amount of time. We changed the starting lineup even today. All week we’ve gone with a completely different starting lineup.”
It’s unclear exactly when Smith got hurt. He missed most of the final exhibition in Europe this summer because he hurt his knee in the game, but he didn’t appear to be limited in the Red-White Game or either of the exhibition games leading up to the season.
Asked when the injury occurred and when he found out Smith would be unavailable for the opener, Musselman referred to the release sent out earlier in the day, which said he is “going through right knee management and is being withheld for precautionary measures.”
“He’s injured, so everything’s kind of irrelevant other than the fact that we got Fordham coming in here and we need to get ready for Fordham,” Musselman said. “The players that are available, we’ll do all we can to try to have a good couple days of prep.”
That release also said that there was no set timetable for his return, which prompted Musselman to be asked about his level of concern regarding the injury. Instead of addressing Smith specifically, he brought up guys like Anthony Black and Trevon Brazile who got banged up during Monday’s game. (Both of them returned to the floor.)
“I mean, I’m concerned with everybody,” Musselman said. “I’m concerned about a whole bunch of things. I mean, I’m concerned about (Black) getting banged up and Brazile’s back there, I don’t know what he’s grabbing or whatever, but he’s hurt in some way, shape or form. But we’ll be fine. We’ve just got to next guy up, whoever is healthy on Friday.”
Usually pretty open with the media, Musselman’s guarded responses are understandable considering Smith’s status as a top-five prospect in next summer’s NBA Draft.
Council Dazzles in Arkansas Debut
One beneficiary of the Nick Smith Jr. injury was Ricky Council IV. Eric Musselman said he was inserted into the starting lineup “at the last minute” and the Wichita State transfer made the most of the opportunity.
He immediately made his presence known, scoring six of the Razorbacks’ first nine points with a pair of layups sandwiched around a turnaround jumper late in the shot clock.
Council really asserted himself after halftime, though. That’s when he scored 14 of his 22 total points and most that came on drives to the basket.
“I thought Ricky was overly aggressive,” Musselman said. “I mean, his energy when he had the ball was phenomenal. I thought he had great bounce off the dribble. Thought he attacked the rim really well.”
Despite playing 36 minutes, Council turned the ball over just once and he was an efficient 9 of 14 (64.3%) from the floor. That included going 1 of 2 from beyond the arc, which Musselman said is something he should be able to do this year to keep defenses honest.
Perhaps his most impressive play of the night was a reverse dunk that showcased the athleticism he’s become known for since arriving on campus.
“I always know Ricky is going to do some crazy stuff,” teammate Trevon Brazile said. “You never know with that guy. The reverse dunk was just… I’ve never seen somebody reverse on somebody just driving down the lane. He’s crazy.”
Brazile Posts Double-Double
Also making his Arkansas basketball debut Monday night, Trevon Brazile turned in a double-double with 21 points and 12 rebounds in 32 minutes off the bench.
His scoring ability has been a source of excitement for fans since his incredibly efficient performance in Europe, but the coaching staff has been on the 6-foot-10 big man about being more active on the glass.
It seems like the messaging got through because he posted a career high in that category against the Bison, with his 12 topping the 10 he grabbed against Georgia as a freshman at Missouri last season.
“The goal was 15 tonight, so I think I’m three short, but they were happy with my rebounding performance,” Brazile said. “Going into it, that is always how I try to get myself going, is going to the glass and that creates other opportunities.”
Brazile also set a career high with three 3-pointer, going 3 of 6 from beyond the arc. He shot a respectable 33.3% on a low volume at Missouri last season, but with Nick Smith Jr. out, Brazile was asked to pick up some of the slack and he delivered.
His potential really flashed in a 30-second segment on back-to-back possessions early in the second half. After knocking down a corner 3, he had the ball on the wing, pump faked and drove to the basket, finishing through contact for an old-fashioned 3-point play.
“Really impressed with his 3-point shooting,” Musselman said. “He’s done a really good job of getting his feet set. … With the makeup of our roster tonight, he might be our biggest 3-point threat. And then when people crowd him, he’s going to have the ability to beat them off the bounce and draw free throws attempted, so I thought he was really effective offensively.”
Even with those solid numbers, it was not a perfect performance, as Musselman said he’d like to see him be more active on the offensive boards (only one of his 12 rebounds was offensive) and play better on the other side of the ball.
“Think he’s going to have to have more of an impact defensively than he did tonight,” Musselman said. “I thought Nelson did a good job of attacking and getting into his body. We can’t rely on blocking shots. We need to go vertical a little bit better against guys of equal size. We need to be a little bit more physical. We need to hold our ground in the post.”
Good Devo, Bad Devo
The only other Arkansas basketball player in double-figures Monday night was Davonte Davis, who poured in 18 points on 6 of 14 shooting from the floor and 6 of 8 shooting from the line.
He added a couple of steals and a blocked shot while playing all but 56 seconds of the game, but he also committed five turnovers. That was nearly as many as the rest of the Razorbacks combine.
Musselman mentioned that he’d like Davis to notch some assists, but those turnovers drew the most ire postgame.
“I thought he played really good at times, and sometimes Devo-like where he tried to make two spectacular plays and just the simple play will do,” Musselman said. “Right now, what we need from Devo, we need him to score.
“We need him to be a scoring combo guard. Him and (Anthony Black) are both going to have the ball in their hands. But the turnovers, when your team only has 11 and one guy has five, that’s got to get cleaned up.”
The Other Freshmen
While Nick Smith Jr. is undoubtedly the most heralded of the bunch, he wasn’t the only McDonald’s All-American who signed with the Razorbacks this year. Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh each made their collegiate debut against North Dakota State.
Black was in the starting lineup at point guard and played 30 minutes. He managed just 3 points on 1 of 7 shooting, but he also grabbed 7 rebounds, dished 3 assists, notched 3 steals and even blocked a shot.
“I don’t know if he’s going to be a 20-point scorer every night, but he’s the type of guy that affects the game without you even knowing,” teammate Ricky Council IV said. “I knew he picked up some cheap fouls — that probably threw his head off a little bit — but at the end of the day, I thought he played well.”
Foul trouble severely limited Walsh’s minutes, as he fouled out with more than 10 minutes remaining in the game. He made his only shot and knocked down both of his free throws, giving him 4 points to go along with 2 rebounds and 3 assists in 18 minutes off the bench.
“I don’t know how many times he fouled on loose balls,” Musselman said. “I don’t know how to how to help him with that, because we needed him tonight to not foul out, so that’s got to be an area on loose balls of understanding when he can gamble and when he can’t gamble.”
It’s also worth noting that the Razorbacks’ other three freshmen also played. Joseph Pinion was the first off the bench, followed by Derrian Ford. Barry Dunning Jr. didn’t play until the second half, but ended up playing the most out of the four-star signees.
None of them scored, but Dunning and Ford each missed a shot. Pinion’s only statistic was a foul, as he fouled a 3-point shooter shortly after checking in, while Dunning had a steal and Ford had a rebound.
Texas Loss Serves Its Purpose
The 30-point blowout loss at No. 12 Texas nine days earlier didn’t feel good in the moment, but it ultimately served its purpose of getting the Arkansas basketball team’s attention.
Eric Musselman was not shy about his displeasure about the practices leading up to the trip. Since then, though, he’s liked what he’s seen.
“I don’t know how old they are or whatever, I just know our young team needed to see that,” Musselman said. “Our guys leave when they’ve still got a lot of eligibility left, but those guys, they’re an older crew that we played and I think that’s what we needed.
“It was a heck of a lot better than playing an exhibition game at home. We got to try to figure out what it’s like to travel on the road, and, hey, we got our behinds (kicked). I mean, it was a bad loss, but we had really good practices since then.”
The result was a comfortable 18-point win over North Dakota State that would have had a 21-point margin had it not been for a garbage time 3-pointer in the game’s final 10 seconds. That didn’t quite cover the 22.5-point spread, but it was better than several college programs could say on Opening Day.
Stetson knocked off Florida State, Florida Gulf Coast crushed USC, No. 9 Creighton struggled with St. Thomas and No. 14 TCU had to rally from a double-digit deficit to beat UAPB, just to name a games from across the country.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- Arkansas never trailed, but it was a close game for much of the first half. In fact, it was a one-possession game for about 13 minutes and the Bison had several chances to take the lead. However, they missed all six of the shots that would have put them up, including five from beyond the arc, plus they made just 2 of 3 free throws when all three would have given them a 1-point lead.
- A major point of emphasis for Arkansas was defending the 3-point line, as it allowed Texas to shoot 62.5% (10 of 16) from deep in its last exhibition and North Dakota State shot 15 of 34 (44.1%) from beyond the arc in its exhibition. The goal was to limit the Bison to just five and the Razorbacks did just that, holding them to 5 of 21 (23.8%) — and the last one came in the closing seconds.
- Arizona State transfer Jalen Graham did not play at all in the game after starting both exhibition games. Musselman said it was a coach’s decision.
- Starting in Graham’s place was Rhode Island transfer Makhi Mitchell. Similar to Walsh, he was limited because of foul trouble, but still managed 8 points on 4 of 5 shooting. Most of that was the result of his excellent footwork in the post. He also tied for the team lead with three steals, but Musselman added that he’d like to see him grab more than four rebounds.
Final Stats – Arkansas vs North Dakota State
Here are highlights from Arkansas’ season-opening win over North Dakota State:
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