Mike Irwin’s Calling Out of Certain Fans Applies to More Than One Razorback Star

Davonte Davis, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

The Arkansas Razorbacks are back in the Sweet 16 for the third straight year. The only other time the program has enjoyed such a run was from 1993-96.

This is just what everyone predicted when they entered the season ranked in the top 10. Just like everyone predicted when Trevon Brazile was lost for the season and Nick Smith, Jr. missed most of it. Just like everyone predicted when they opened SEC play with a loss to a horrid LSU team and started 1-5 in the league. Just like everyone predicted when they went to Lexington and destroyed Kentucky at Rupp Arena. Just like everyone predicted when Smith returned and the Hogs lost six of their last nine games before the NCAA Tournament. Just like everyone predicted every time Arkansas blew a double-digit lead this season.

This victory was special not just because it was an upset over a 1-seed and not just because of another trip to the Sweet 16. Those of us who have followed this squad this season know the team has endured as many twists and turns as you get on the curly tail of a Razorback. The win was validation that through all the turmoil, the hard work is paying off. That’s why Eric Musselman pulled off his shirt on the court after the game, Davonte “Devo” Davis teared up during his postgame interview, and several players were emotional in the locker room afterward.

Arkansas Basketball Heroes

There are plenty of great storylines to come out of the game. Kamani Johnson’s putback bucket with 50 seconds left to give the Razorbacks the lead resembled his putback at the buzzer against San Diego State back in Maui in November to send that game to overtime and gave the Hogs their biggest resume win of the season. Who would’ve thought that would be his second-biggest basket of the year?

Ricky Council IV’s five clutch free throws in the final minute iced the game, but his miss was the most important because Jordan Walsh tipped the rebound back to Council, who was able to give the Hogs a three-point lead. It’s not a sequence Arkansas intended to happen, but it worked out. Kansas attempted a similar sequence in the games final seconds, but Jalen Wilson accidentally made his second free throw, allowing the Hogs to close out the game with a one-point victory.

Arguably the most heartwarming of all this team’s storylines is how Devo Davis has carved out his place in Razorback history. A four-star recruit out of Jacksonville, Davis established himself as a defensive star as a freshman on Arkansas’ 2021 team with the ability for an occasional offensive outburst. He made the shot to clinch Arkansas’ win over Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16 that season.

Expectations were high for him as a sophomore, but he often struggled. He was ejected from an early non conference game, lost his spot in the starting lineup, and his offensive statistics went down from his freshman year. Still, he showed flashes of brilliance, such as this pass in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year:

But just as often, he would make a frustrating turnover. He didn’t start this year much better. A rough early start in Maui followed by a missed game due to personal issue again resulted in Davis finding himself out of the starting lineup when Smith first returned from his first knee management issue.

Davonte Davis’ Struggles

Davis’ struggles often resulted in criticism from fans and analysts alike, and while some of it was warranted, modern online discourse is often toxic and unfair. Davis’ experience was no exception.

Few anticipated it, but when Nick Smith Jr. left the team again due to issues with his knee, Davis became one of the team’s most effective offensive weapons while regularly defending the opposing team’s best player. He shot 41.5% from three in SEC play, giving the Hogs a deep threat that they sorely needed. There was a 9-game stretch in January and February in which he scored at least 15 points in each game.

When Smith came back again, Davis’ offensive role appeared to be impacted as much as anyone else’s. He scored only four combined points in the home game wins against Florida and Georgia, but struggled again down the stretch. His ejection from the Kentucky game in Fayetteville was a turning point against the Wildcats.

Against Kansas, it often felt like the Hogs wouldn’t be able to put together a run, but Davis almost single-handedly kept Arkansas in the game through much of the the second half, at one point scoring 10 straight points for the Hogs amidst 21 second half points to give them a chance to win the game after he fouled out.

Unlike the Kentucky game, when the team struggled after Davis left the game, this time Arkansas was able to make clutch plays when they needed them.

Davis’ story is the type that college sports were built on. It’s harder to find these stories in 2023 when the sport is dominated by one-and-done players and transfers. While those short-term players definitely have their place and are always beloved when they are able to help their teams win games, the players who stay at a program for a long time will always have the tightest bonds with a fanbase.

When a player comes to school as an 18 or 19-year old kid, struggles but works hard and develops over his career, and then performs at an elite level against elite opponents and helps earn historic victories for the program – that’s when they find themselves on the shortlist of fans’ favorite players. These are the ones whose stories get told for years to come and has some fans (*clears throat*) calling for statues to be built.

If it wasn’t clear before, it should be clear now how much this team and this season means to these players. They’re giving it their all. That’s easier to acknowledge when the a player is playing well, win or lose, but harder to stomach when a player is in the middle of a cold streak like Nick Smith Jr. is now.

Parallels with Nick Smith Jr.

Smith was fighting back tears in vain in the locker room after the Kansas win because he knows that, currently, his team is closer to winning more in spite of him than because of him. Ultra competitor that he is, that must eat him up inside. The current struggles on top of inconsistent play and those missed games make Smith easy pickings for online critics who likely also felt Devo Davis was overrated all this time.

Davis showed them in resounding fashion, and it would not be shocking to see Smith likewise put together a bounce back game in a Sweet 16 bout vs UConn in which the Huskies have opened as a -3.5 favorite. Check out this BetMGM bonus code Maryland before the game to get into the action.

Some followers, however, need to cool it when it comes to Smith. “Hog fans throwing shade on this kid need to get a clue,” Arkansas sportscaster Mike Irwin Tweeted. “He knows what’s expected of him. He knows he’s not delivering. He’s hurting. He’s an Arkansas kid and he loves that Hog as much as any of you. Give him some space and he might just find himself before this season is over.”

The same patience afforded to Davis should now be given to Smith. “He’s human, and we always comforted him and we know how he feels to be in a position he’s in and have all the pressure that everybody’s putting on him,” Davis said of Smith on Wednesday. “He knows I love him. And he’ll be fine.”

Those two are part of a group that laid it all on the line in a game in which they could have folded when they were down by double digits in the second half. Maybe earlier this season they would have, but not now. Now, riding a wave of far more grit than luck, the Hogs are headed to Vegas.

More from Mike Irwin on Nick Smith Jr. after Kansas:

“I saw a kid that was broken. Here he is, wanting so much to be a part of this, and he knows he didn’t contribute, and he knows what’s been happening to him. And it bothered me,” Irwin said on Pig Trail Nation’s “Ask Mike” show. “I stayed up all night tossing and turning and thinking about that… On a night when there were lots of positive posts on social media, you still had [some fans] picking at him, ‘We don’t need him. We proved we don’t need him.’ Picking at him.”

In a different part, Irwin talks about how these particularly malicious fans often tend to also criticize Smith for the time he took off: “I’m thinking to myself, ‘What is wrong with you?’ I mean, I’ve seen people go into great detail about what he allegedly did. His dad did this and he went out and his agent said … I’m thinking, “You act like you’re in his family, like you were standing next to him the whole time he was gone. You know exactly everything he did.’ And you don’t; you know what you’re doing? You’re repeating rumors.”

YouTube video

YouTube video

More from Devo Davis on Nick Smith Jr.

“Me and Nick have been knowing each other — we’re from the same place [Jacksonville] since we’ve been playing at the Boys & Girls Club,” Davis said during Wednesday’s press conference. “And that’s about 6 and 7. What he went through, like I know myself, because we all went through something before.”

“… he’s a young man that a lot of people can’t faze. And it’s tough to be in his world today and to be able to take on the things he’s taking on.”

“I’m glad he’s able to take on the way he is. And I appreciate that and I know other guys do as well. For him to be able to cry in that locker room, feel those emotions, even after not having the best game, and being there for us and we being there for him, we being there for each other, it’s just amazing… Like Kamani said, it’s a new city. We’re in Vegas. He told me earlier today he felt good. We’re ready.”

Check out our full preview of the upcoming Arkansas vs UConn matchup:

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