We didn’t know it Tuesday night, but winning the UNC Greensboro game without Trevon Brazile for more than half the game was just the beginning of some adversity.
Brazile left the the game at the 7:30 mark of the first half after his knee buckled, and he crumpled to the floor. He never returned, but the SEC broadcast crew reported just before the first half that the injury is “not one that will be long term.”
That report didn’t age well. On Wednesday, Arkansas announced Brazile was out for the season with a torn ACL.
The news was a blow for sure. SEC Network’s Dane Bradshaw called the Springfield, Mo., native and Missouri transfer “the most improved player in the SEC” before he injured his knee. The 6-foot-10 sophomore has proven to be a dynamic spark off the bench, and we will never forget his highlight reel dunk that is one of the best throw-downs in Bud Walton Arena history.
Silver Lining from Tuesday’s Game
The good news for the Hogs Tuesday night was they did have star freshman guard Nick Smith Jr. in the lineup. Arkansas trailed UNCG 26-21 at halftime and shot a season-worst 9 of 30 from the field and were also 0 of 8 from the 3-point line. However, as Smith did so many times just a year ago at North Little Rock High School, the McDonald’s All-American put the team on his back and scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half to pull out the win. The beginning of that run came with less than a minute gone in the second half, when Smith nailed the Hogs’ first 3-pointer of the game and cut the Greensboro lead to two.
It was his conventional 3-point play following a steal with just over a minute to play that sealed the game.
“Basically, we tried to turn them over,” Smith told the media following the game. “We tried to get some stops. Tried to get buckets, and that’s what we did.”
Smith was 9 of 11 from the free throw line, helping bolster the 23-of-27 team total for the half.
Arkansas trailed the Spartans 49-46, but the Hogs finished the remaining 5:37 on a 19-9 run.
“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,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “And they all kind of did it in one game. Not all, but many.
“But I thought down the stretch our guys played composed.”
Nick Smith Jr., Others Step Up for Arkansas Basketball
Make no mistake, beating the 4-6 Spartans 65-58 isn’t good news, but Hog fans should be encouraged that when circumstances were tough, the team responded in the second half. When Arkansas needed a play (like the late three-point play), Smith responded.
Smith was playing in just his third game of the season battling a minor knee injury, and it is hard to really count the first game against Troy because he only made a cameo appearance. The good news for Hogs fans is Arkansas was more than competitive without Smith and turned in a nice showing at the Maui Invitational.
My comment after that tournament was, “If the Hogs are this good without Smith, think about what happens when they get him back.” He’s a special player, and I saw that first-hand while covering him at North Little Rock. He will also only get better as he gets his legs under him and what he did in the second half to help pull out a win on a night where not much was going right for the first 20 minutes was only scratching the surface.
The other comforting thing for Arkansas fans is Smith won’t have to carry the burden of losing Brazile alone. Musselman and the staff has stockpiled this roster with talent. Wichita State transfer Rickey Council IV is way better than most expected, leading the SEC in scoring. He scored all eight of his points in the second half to also help fuel the win.
Arkansas got 13 points, 14 rebounds and 4 blocks from senior transfer Makhi Mitchell, as well, which was also encouraging in the absence of Brazile.
“I was kind of scared, honestly, just because of how (Brazile) went down, and that’s just my brother,” Mitchell said. “We just stayed the course. Next man up.”
If Smith’s ascension to superstardom is the biggest key to this young Arkansas team making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, the consistency of junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis may be the second-most important. So far, in his career, Davis has shown a knack for coming off the bench and sparking Arkansas. He has also made a habit of inconsistency. The Jacksonville product is a potential stat sheet stuffer who can shoot, pass and rebound, but he isn’t always able to produce at a high level in all three facets at once.
With Brazile benched Tuesday night, Davis, who took a brief leave from the team earlier this month, did turn in an all-around performance guarding some of Greensboro’s big men, even though he is only 6-foot-4, and totaled 10 points, 10 rebounds and 3 steals.
“We had Devo guarding some (power forwards) and we played him out of position just because we’re kind of doing stuff on the fly with T.B. getting injured,” Musselman said. “But I thought his energy was phenomenal, crashing the glass at his size. Getting 10 boards was awesome.”
What it Means Moving Forward
If Davis could do that every night and maybe make a few three-pointers, or just stop shooting them and rely on his mid-range game while not forcing things offensively, Arkansas could be a Final Four team. With improvements from Davis, Smith, Jordan Walsh, the Mitchell twins and others, the Razorbacks should remain nearly as dangerous as they were with Brazile in the last month.
I definitely don’t think Arkansas basketball should be downgraded to national title “pretender” status, as former Butler head coach LaVall Jordan and former Florida Gator Patric Young did in the “Field of 68” video below.
I have seen what a fully healthy Smith is capable of and, with him leading the way, I don’t think expectations for this team should change even with Brazile’s absence.
Young starts sharing his take on Arkansas without Brazile at 1:10 below:
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