Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for the Hawgs Sports Network. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas and previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was the 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Takeaways from Arkansas' 84-65 win over Florida
Arkansas forward Jalen Graham (11) reacts after his dunk, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, during the second half of the Razorbacks’ 84-65 win over the Florida Gators at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — At no other point this season had Arkansas run offense through forward Jalen Graham like it did Saturday against Florida.
The Arizona State transfer was up for the challenge. He dropped a career-high 26 points on the Gators during the Razorbacks’ 84-65 victory in Bud Walton Arena.
Graham finished one point shy of matching the highest point total by an Arkansas player this season. Ricky Council scored 27 against Troy in November.
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman has often said Graham is a supremely talented offensive player on the interior, capable of hurting opposing big men with a variety of moves and quality footwork.
Graham had it all working against Florida, which played its first full game without one of the league’s top scorers and shot blockers, forward Colin Castleton.
Graham took full advantage of matchups with the slower-footed Jason Jitoboh, freshman Aleks Szymczyk — who had played 14 minutes all season prior to Saturday — and Alex Fudge, a 6-9 forward who had not blocked more than 1 shot in a game since November.
“When I first got in there, I just felt like I could score off the rip against both their bigs, and especially when they put their smaller, littler guard (on me),” Graham said. “I just felt like I could get to my spots and rise up and just continue to be confident and just put the ball in the rim.”
Graham got his first 3 shots to fall, missed 1 then made 7 in a row — 3 to end the first half and first 4 after halftime. He added back-to-back scores less than six minutes into the second half that pushed Arkansas’ lead to 54-33, then a layup assisted by freshman Anthony Black gave the Razorbacks their largest lead at 25 points.
The forward matched a season high with three offensive rebounds. He scored immediately after each of them.
“I thought he was great,” Musselman said. “He’s a really good passer, too, so I think some teams at times can be a little bit reluctant to double team JG just because he’s got a really good feel. I thought he had great matchups for him to guard tonight.
“And if he plays well defensively and blocks two shots and rebounds like he did tonight (it helps us).”
Saturday marked the sixth time this season that Graham finished with double-digit points. He has a total of four points the next time out, including three scoreless games.
Graham noted that continuing to get work in behind closed doors is the key to putting together big back-to-back performances.
“Just be confident, just keep going,” Graham said. “You know, I’m not expecting another 26-point night or doing this again. I just want to be an offensive threat and help my team win.
“As long as I can just continue to do that, I’ll be happy.”
Smith packed a punch
Freshman guard Nick Smith started for the first time since Dec. 17 against Bradley in North Little Rock.
It took some time for him to make an impact against Florida, but he was vital in the Razorbacks flipping the game's trajectory prior to halftime. Smith began a 14-2 Arkansas run with a layup through contact in transition that trimmed the Gators’ lead to 21-19.
Roughly five minutes later, he capped the spurt with another and-1 that pushed the Razorbacks’ lead to 30-23.
Smith finished the game with 10 points on 4 of 12 from the field and 2 steals in 32 minutes. Arkansas outscored Florida by 23 when he was on the floor.
In the team’s last two home games, Smith has helped it outscore opponents by 26 points in his 49 minutes.
“He just had to get back in the flow,” Council said. “I mean, he missed like two months. If anybody missed two months, it would be the same or even worse. Not worse on his part, just saying the comeback flow. He definitely looked better out there tonight.
“He got two and-1s early, brought a lot of energy to the crowd and us. I'm looking forward to continuing to see his growth.”
Smith’s final score came in transition, too. But his first bucket of the game was a smooth pull-up jumper near the right elbow that appeared to put a greater bounce in his step.
“I think that this game was important to him to get 30-plus minutes,” Musselman said. “We have a big game coming up on Tuesday (against Georgia) and two big games on the road, then a big one at home. Every game right now for the Razorbacks is important.
“Him getting a little bit of rhythm and flow, it’s a lot different than 3-on-3.”
After playing only 4 minutes Wednesday against Texas A&M and having 1 shot blocked in addition to 2 turnovers, it was encouraging to see Smith make his mark against a team with a top-25 defensive efficiency rating.
Council effective off the bench
The Wichita State transfer was playing with a heavy heart against Florida on Saturday.
Toward the end of his post-game interview, Council was asked what keyed his 15-point game and he relayed that he lost a friend earlier this week. The passing has been on his mind a lot lately.
“Just trying to get back in my groove,” Council added. “Just getting mentally prepared. My family being down here helped a lot. Just getting back in a groove and I think I’ll be good moving forward.”
Saturday’s game was Council’s first he began on the bench since Jan. 11 against Alabama. He still accounted for Arkansas’ first two scores by hitting forward Makhi Mitchell for a layup then knocking down a tough runner in which he hung in the air to avoid a Florida shot blocker.
Musselman commended Council for his approach to the game. He arrived at the arena “really early” Saturday, and Arkansas’ fourth-year coach was pleased that he did.
“That's what we want from a player,” Musselman said. “He knows the confidence we have in him. He played 32 minutes. He deserved to, and we need him to play well.”
Following a 4-of-18 stretch from the floor against Mississippi State and Texas A&M, Council was 6 of 10 from the field. He got 3 of 5 field goal attempts to fall in each half.
His 6 two-point buckets against the Gators were his most in an SEC game. Another bonus: he finished with seven defensive rebounds — his most in a game since Feb. 20, 2022, against Houston.
Makhi Mitchell impresses again
The 6-9 Rhode Island transfer was one rebound shy of notching a double-double in Wednesday’s loss at Texas A&M. He finished with 11 points and 9 rebounds, and limited the Aggies to 1 of 12 from the floor when the nearest Arkansas defender to a shot.
On Saturday, he got his double-double and was again a bright spot on both ends. Mitchell tallied 10 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 steal in his 20 minutes.
The Razorbacks outscored the Gators 43-16 when he was in the lineup.
“(He) did a phenomenal job as a rim roller,” Musselman said. “He did a great job being in the dunker spot and having his hands ready to catch and flush on any dump-off passes. His plus/minus was really good and his rebounding (was) really good.”
Mitchell did the bulk of his work on the glass prior to halftime. He went into the break with a team-high eight boards.
Mitchell had an active start to the game, adding a layup, defensive rebound, steal and block within the first three minutes. And he helped Arkansas pull way early in the second half, pitching in six points in a 17-2 avalanche.
“He’s just a monster, to be honest,” Graham said of Mitchell. “Nothing new, nothing different. He’s just an offensive threat, defensive threat. He hit a jumper today. That’s what he does.
“Rebounding the ball, he can do everything. I mean, we need him, and I love playing with him while I’m in the game.”
Mitchell sits in the top 10 in SEC games in offensive and defensive rebound rate and block percentage, according to KenPom data. Arkansas will need more of his toughness on the interior down the stretch.
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