Wally Hall is the managing sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock after an honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force, he is a member and past president of the Football Writers Association of America, member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, past president and current executive committee and board member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year 10 times and has been inducted to the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
Like It Is:
Razorbacks looking more complete
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman (right) speaks with forward Jalen Graham during a game against Georgia on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Fayetteville.
On Tuesday night, the Arkansas Razorbacks looked like the team that was voted to finish second in the preseason in the SEC behind Kentucky.
They owned the Georgia Bulldogs in Walton Arena.
A big part of why the Hogs are hitting on all cylinders is freshman Nick Smith Jr. He’s not the only reason, and he shouldn’t be expected to score 26 or more, in a game again.
Maybe the most improved player is fellow freshman Anthony Black who had 8 of Arkansas’ 26 assists, added 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, grabbed 4 rebounds and made 2 steals.
Black was already improving each week, but it does appear Smith makes everyone around him better.
In December, the Razorbacks went to Tulsa to face Oklahoma. It was their first game without Trevon Brazile, who had suffered a season-ending knee injury four days earlier.
Brazile was averaging 11.7 points, 6 rebounds and 27 minutes. The 6-11 sophomore transfer was a main cog in the Arkansas wheel.
Eric Musselman didn’t bat an eye.
The Razorbacks beat Oklahoma 88-78 and had 5 blocked shots and 10 steals. Ricky Council led them in scoring with 26 points, Smith had 21, Jordan Walsh 12 and Makhi Mitchell 10.
Black had 8 points but made all 4 of his shots and had 5 rebounds.
A few hours after the game, OU head coach Porter Moser texted that Arkansas had amazing talent.
No one knew Smith would play one more game and then miss 13 to manage a knee injury.
Arkansas opened SEC play three games later and lost 60-57 at LSU, and the Tigers haven’t won again. What happened that night in Baton Rouge was the Razorbacks were adjusting to losing Smith.
It appeared the Hogs were getting back on track beating Missouri, but then they lost their next four.
By the time Smith was able to come back, the Razorbacks were fresh off a win over Kentucky in Rupp Arena and seemed to have turned the corner.
They were on a three-game win steak when Smith returned, and it was obvious another adjustment was being made by the players as they lost winnable games to Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
But Musselman was melding the talent into a team, something he is very good at. By the time Georgia rolled into Fayetteville, the Razorbacks were armed and dangerous.
If not for injuries the Razorbacks would most likely be 11-4 in SEC play today instead of 8-7. But Musselman always plays the hand he is dealt, and during the 13 games Smith missed the coach downplayed the whole thing.
He didn’t ignore it. He wasn’t upset. He sure didn’t make excuses.
He just kept it low key, giving Smith the time he needed to get prepared physically and mentally, and it seems to have paid off.
Against Florida and Georgia, Smith made cuts, turns and power moves that put pressure on that knee, but he never so much as winced, and he was not wearing a knee brace.
The Razorbacks seemed more comfortable Tuesday night in their role.
They have become a team, one that is taking smarter shots, playing tough defense and passing the ball. Selfish teams don’t have 26 assists.
All eight players in Musselman’s rotation scored and most had assists.
Arkansas got 41 points from its bench, including three from Fayetteville walk-on Lawson Blake, who the team celebrated like he had just hit the game winner.
In the end, they hugged and laughed together because they knew they had just put their best team effort on the floor and it can be a great building block.
The Razorbacks face the toughest part of their schedule now, but they do so with some confidence in their teamwork.
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