Defense won't rest for Whitt's dream

By: Bob Holt
Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2020
Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt (33) defends North Texas guard Javion Hamlet (3) during a game Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by David Beach
Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt (33) defends North Texas guard Javion Hamlet (3) during a game Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Jimmy Whitt is averaging 18.2 points in SEC games to lead the University of Arkansas basketball team, but it's the fifth-year senior guard's defense that might be his ticket to the NBA.

"I think Jimmy is one of the best defenders in all of college basketball," Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman said. "I think he is an NBA-type defender."

Musselman should know what it takes to defend in the NBA. He coached in the NBA for 10 seasons, including as a head coach with Golden State and Sacramento and as an assistant with Minnesota, Orlando, Atlanta and Memphis.

"I think to play at the next level, it's all about do you do one thing great?" Musselman said. "And then do you know who you are as a player?"

Musselman said Whitt checks those boxes in terms of being an elite defender and having excellent shot selection with midrange jumpers and drives to the basket.

"We certainly feel like he's a guy that would have to earn his way onto a roster [in the NBA] through like a training camp-type situation," Musselman said. "But I definitely feel like he is a guy that -- having coached at the NBA level -- has a role, just like Cody Martin has a role right now with Charlotte."

Martin, a rookie who was a second-round draft pick by the Hornets, played for Musselman at Nevada.

"I truly believe if you are an NBA coach that you would want a guy that practices hard every day," Musselman said of Whitt. "A guy that can defend and does one thing really special, and he does that. And he's a great locker room guy."

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Musselman raved about Whitt's defense after the Razorbacks' 78-67 victory over TCU on Saturday when the 6-3 Whitt played all 40 minutes and held Horned Frogs 6-6 senior Desmond Bane to 8 points on 3-of-6 shooting.

Bane scored 27 points the previous game in TCU's 65-54 victory over Texas Tech -- a team known for playing stingy defense under Coach Chris Beard -- and was averaging 17.2 points before taking on Whitt and the Razorbacks.

"Jimmy was awesome," Musselman said. "He didn't come off the floor for a blow at all. He face-guarded and didn't allow Bane to catch the ball ... just took him out of the game."

Whitt said it takes skill to play great defense, but effort is a more important factor.

"I think defense -- for me wanting to go to the next level -- that's going to be big for me," he said. "To try to carve out a role and get paid as a defender. Offensively, I'm just going to try to make plays where I can. But that's not what my game is predicated on. It's not the biggest role I play for this team.

"The biggest role is defense. So I take a lot of pride in that. Each and every night, Coach asks me to guard the best offensive player or the best playmaker on the other team, whether it's a point guard, 1 through 5, whatever it is. I like stepping up to the challenge."

The challenge for Whitt when the Razorbacks (15-4, 3-3 SEC) play South Carolina (11-8, 3-3) on Wednesday night in Walton Arena figures to be guarding 6-6 sophomore AJ Lawson, who is averaging a team-high 13.7 points.

Lawson scored 24 points in the Gamecocks' 77-65 victory over the Razorbacks last season -- when Whitt was at SMU before returning to Arkansas as a graduate transfer.

It's also possible Whitt might be on 6-4 redshirt freshman guard Jermaine Couisnard, who is averaging 16.2 points in SEC play for South Carolina.

Musselman joked he'll have to consult with his dog, Swish, to decide Whitt's defensive assignment.

"But Jimmy's always gone on the [opponent's] best player, so I'm assuming that he'll guard Lawson," Musselman said. "Lawson is a tough cover, but I could see other players guarding him, too.

"[Cousinard] is playing well for them and creates mismatches, so Jimmy could be on him for some stretches as well."

Whitt said that when he finds out who he'll be guarding, he likes to watch some film -- but not too much.

"Just a little bit to see his tendencies, see what guys like to do," Whitt said. "Which way they like to dribble, how they like to score, things like that."

Whitt is averaging 15.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists. He's hit 122 of 230 shots for 53% -- all on two-point attempts except for a lone three-point attempt at the end of the first half of a 75-55 victory over Vanderbilt.

"They're playing Jimmy Whitt at the four a lot, so he's been matched up against bigger players," South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said. "Then he plays from that 15-17 foot mark, and he's not really at the rim.

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"He's trying to play off the bounce to like 12-14 feet. And he's automatic when he can get to that spot. So we have to be very careful with our assignment on him.

"Even though they don't score off post-ups, he gives them a lot of that so-called, you know what everyone says doesn't work anymore: midrange. He is phenomenal from that spot. And he's a fifth-year guy. So he's at peace with who he is, and so he's a problem."

Whitt is averaging 21.0 points in the past four games, including a career-high 30 against Vanderbilt, and 20 at Mississippi State and against TCU.

"I'm absolutely impressed with Whitt and his ability to create shots," Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said. "He plays like he's an NBA veteran that's 33 years old. His feel for the game and how to bump guys to create a little space to get his shot off, he's uncanny."

Musselman said Whitt's length helps him get shots over taller opponents, but also is key to his defense.

"Seven-foot wingspan, studies the scouting report, asks questions, understands defensive angles, doesn't crowd guys that are great dribble-drive guys," Musselman said. "He gives them an arm's length. But yet because of his great wingspan, he can contest three-balls.

"I think most importantly, he wants to guard the opposing team's best player, and he takes that as a challenge. Some guys hide from it. When you bring your team together and you say, 'Hey, who wants to guard Bane?' His is the first hand up."

Whitt said having Musselman call him an NBA level defender means a lot.

"It's a big confidence boost, especially coming from a coach with the background that he has," Whitt said. "He definitely knows what he's talking about. But it's also something that once he says it, you've got to go out there and prove it each and every day now. That's extra motivation for me."

It also can motivate Whitt to fulfill his NBA dream.

"I think everybody in my position has aspirations to go play at the NBA," Whitt said. "For me, I want to carve out a role ... to play at the next level. Be able to lock down on defense, make the shots that you can make.

"It's not the first thing on my mind, obviously, with the season still in play. But it's definitely something I think about."

Sports on 01/28/2020

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