Hogs adjusting minus star as SEC play nears

Arkansas guard Nick Smith walks off the floor on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, before the start of play against UNC-Asheville at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

Arkansas’ men’s basketball team will open SEC play at LSU on Wednesday without freshman guard Nick Smith.

Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman said Monday that Smith — a preseason first team All-SEC player and projected lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft — continues to be out indefinitely and won’t play against the Tigers because of what the UA has called “right knee management” in a news release.

It will be the eighth game Smith, averaging 12.8 points per game with highs of 22 points against North Carolina-Greensboro and 21 against Oklahoma, has missed this season and second in a row. He missed the first six games then played in the next five with four starts.

“Nick’s out indefinitely. He’s not playing in this game,” Musselman said Monday. “Otherwise the status would change.

“So we need somebody to step up, for sure, just like we have had people step up. New opportunity. Who that is, we don’t really know. Last game, it was Jalen Graham.”

Graham, a senior forward, scored a season-high 16 points in 19 minutes off the bench in the No. 9 Razorbacks’ 85-51 victory over North Carolina-Asheville last Wednesday night.

Freshman forward Jordan Walsh scored a season-high 18 points to help Arkansas beat Bradley 76-57 on Dec. 17 in North Rock when Smith didn’t play the final 17:05.

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When Smith didn’t play in the Maui Invitational, Arkansas freshman guard Anthony Black — who is averaging 12.6 points for the season — averaged 22.3 in three games.

Senior forward Kamani Johnson came up big off the bench in a 78-74 overtime victory against San Diego State in the Maui Invitational third-place game with 7 points, 7 rebounds and 2 steals in 19 minutes.

Razorbacks junior guard Ricky Council has been a consistent offensive threat all season and is averaging a team-high 18.3 points and senior center Makhi Mitchell has been steadily improving and is averaging 7.5 points and 4.9 rebounds.

Junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis had 9 points, 3 assists and 2 rebounds starting in Smith’s place against UNCA and freshman guard Joseph Pinion scored a season-high 10 points off the bench.

“When Nick’s ready, he’ll be back,” Council said Monday. “That’s all I can really say on that. We’ll be fine. We’ll adjust.”

The Razorbacks are 6-1 in games Smith has missed, with the loss to then-No. 10 Creighton, 90-87, in the Maui Invitational.

“We came up short against Creighton, but other than that we’ve [won] without him,” Council said. “He’s a really good player and added to our team in a lot of ways.

“But we’ve just got to adjust. People have got to step up. I think we’ll be ready to go.”

In the seven games Arkansas has played without Smith, it has allowed 0.81 points per possession in 535 defensive possessions, according to HoopLens analytics.

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The Razorbacks have turned those opponents over on 25.8% of their possessions and limited them to 24.5% shooting from three-point range.

Offensively, Arkansas has scored 1.03 points per possession and made 54.9% of its two-point field goal attempts without Smith.

Musselman said after the Razorbacks beat San Jose State 99-58 on Dec. 3 that this is the deepest team he’s had in eight seasons as a college coach, including four at Nevada and four at Arkansas.

But Arkansas sophomore forward Trevon Brazile, who scored 23 points against San Jose State, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the next game against UNC-Greensboro. Smith scored 16 points in the San Jose State game.

The Razorbacks’ depth is being tested in ways that couldn’t have been anticipated.

“We like our roster a ton,” Musselman said. “Different guys have stepped up at different moments. Devo Davis has continued to play at a really, really high level. And Anthony Black, when we’ve been down scorers, has proven that he can step up and score the basketball.

“Yeah, we’re kind of changing our identity as the season is progressing because of the injuries, but I think our ball club is a confident team.

“And I think that we understand that we only have so many limited opportunities to play on the road, and this is one of those opportunities.”