Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for WholeHogSports.com. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, Bordelon previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Springdale. He is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and Football Writers Association of America, and was awarded 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Analyzing Arkansas' win over UNC-Asheville
Arkansas forward Jalen Graham drives to the lane Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, around UNC-Asheville forward Jamon Battle during the second half in Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Tenth-ranked Arkansas’ game against North Carolina-Asheville on Wednesday marked the seventh of the season played without star freshman guard Nick Smith.
As they did in five of six outings prior to his late-November debut, the Razorbacks handled their business against the Bulldogs. They ran away with an 85-51 victory in Bud Walton Arena to move to 11-1 and push their winning streak to 7 games entering Christmas break.
Prior to tipoff, Arkansas announced Smith is out indefinitely — and for the second time this season — due to right knee management.
“Nick is a competitor and he looked forward to playing for the Razorbacks,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said afterward. “He's kind of been in and out of the lineup or whatever, and we just want him to get healthy as quickly as possible and for him to be 100%.”
Asked if Smith’s absence Wednesday was related to his exit early in the second half of last Saturday’s game against Bradley in North Little Rock, Musselman said there was no further update on the guard’s status.
“He's out indefinitely and he's going to continue to rehab as best as he can,” he said.
Without Smith, Arkansas made quick work of UNC-Asheville. The Razorbacks led by as many as 25 points in the first half and 35 after halftime.
They showcased cohesion on the defensive end and, at times, terrific ball movement that suggests solid chemistry. Arkansas knocked down 12 of its first 15 shots, and an assist was attached to nine of the scores.
“This group, obviously we're young, but I think they're really mature,” Musselman said. “Whether it's (Trevon Brazile) being out or Nick, it's an opportunity for somebody to step in.
“That’s just kind of the way it’s going to have to be right now, is somebody is going to have to step up.”
According to HoopLens lineup data, the Razorbacks entered Wednesday scoring at a 1.05 point-per-possession clip with Smith unavailable or off the floor, and they had allowed 0.80 PPP in those instances.
Against the Bulldogs, Arkansas scored 1.25 PPP and UNC-Asheville’s offense was limited to 0.75 PPP.
“We're just deep,” said Jalen Graham, a transfer forward from Arizona State. “We're a really good team. I haven't been a part of a team like this in my four years of playing college basketball. We have some times when people don't get in the game who are really good.
“If people go down, someone's going to step up — and that's for sure.”
Graham goes all out
The former All-Pac-12 performer pieced together his best outing as a Razorback against the Bulldogs.
Graham, 6-9, led all scorers with 16 points and did so on an efficient 8 of 10 from the floor. It is the first time since Feb. 17 against Oregon — a span of 18 games — that he finished with a game-high point total.
He played a key role in the Razorbacks’ second 14-2 run of the first half. Graham went on a personal 6-0 run that included two crafty moves on the interior and a dunk over Bulldogs forward Drew Pember.
Four-plus minutes after the dunk, he added two more layups to push him to 10 points at halftime. The highlight of his night was a one-hand dunk following a lob from freshman guard Joseph Pinion.
Pinion, who added 10 points on a pair of threes and two dunks and made his first appearance in the postgame interview room, said Graham made up for what he considered a bad pass on the play.
“He knew back at ASU (that) I used to get up like that,” Graham said with a smile. “I’ve still got a little bounce left, you know.”
Offensively, Musselman gave Graham’s performance a perfect 10. One critique was that the forward needs to show he can corral physical, in-traffic rebounds. Graham finished with three boards in 19 minutes.
“I think that's his challenge, is to give consistency,” Musselman said. “Not just in a game, but consistency in practice and consistency in getting in the gym on his own. All those things become really important because he's really skilled.
“Obviously, the rebounding becomes very important in traffic once we get into the SEC.”
UNC-Asheville battled turnover issues in its first 12 games of the season.
According to KenPom data, the Bulldogs finished with a turnover rate of 20% or higher seven times, including in six of their wins. Arkansas forwards Kamani Johnson and Makhi Mitchell did not make their lives easier Wednesday.
On a night when the Razorbacks tallied 15 steals, Johnson and Mitchell each came away with three to tie for the team lead. Their takeaways contributed to Arkansas again posting an impressive points-off-turnovers total (32).
According to StatBroadcast analytics, Mitchell had an 11.0% steal rate against UNC-Asheville, and Johnson’s steal percentage landed at 8.0%.
“I just think active hands and trying to be disruptive and all those things are really in our DNA,” Musselman said. “I think we have a lot of guys (who can defend), but certainly Makhi’s hands, for his size, and his anticipation, you don’t see a lot of centers create steals and blocks at the same time.”
Wednesday’s game marked the third of the season for Mitchell in which he recorded three steals. KenPom data shows he is 50th nationally in steal percentage (4.38%), and he is one of two players in the top 50 who stand 6-9 or taller.
Johnson’s three steals matched a career high. His only other three-steal game was against Arkansas State on Feb. 2, 2019, while playing for Arkansas-Little Rock.
Musselman also gave Mitchell and Johnson — as well as Jordan Walsh — a shoutout for their defense on Pember, who entered averaging 19.7 points per game, but finished with 5 points on 1 of 7 from the floor.
Pember missed his final four shots, and his lone bucket came at the 14:51 mark in the first half.
“For the bulk of that last 12 minutes of the first half, Kamani did a great job on him,” Musselman said. “(He did a) great job being physical.”
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