NCAA Tournament Report: Arkansas freshmen lead way

By: Bob Holt Bob Holt's Twitter account
Published: Thursday, March 16, 2023
Arkansas guard Nick Smith Jr. (3) warms up, Wednesday, March 15, 2023 during a practice before the start of the NCAA Basketball Championship first-round game at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.
( Charlie Kaijo)
Arkansas guard Nick Smith Jr. (3) warms up, Wednesday, March 15, 2023 during a practice before the start of the NCAA Basketball Championship first-round game at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Illinois will try to slow down two projected NBA Draft lottery picks when the Illini play the Arkansas Razorbacks today in a first-round NCAA Tournament game in Wells Fargo Arena.

University of Arkansas freshman guards Anthony Black and Nick Smith both are top 10 picks in multiple mock drafts.

The 6-5 Smith, who missed 19 games because of right knee management, is averaging 19.5 points the last six games.

“Nick is an outstanding scorer,” Illinois Coach Brad Underwood said. “He is a capable guy of getting 20 every night he steps on the court.

“And he can do it in a variety of ways. He can do it off catch-and-shoots, he can do it off the bounce, they’re going to put you in ball screens.”

Black, a 6-7 point guard, is the only Razorback who has started all 33 games and is averaging 12.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.0 steals. He also has 20 blocked shots.

“Anthony does it in so many different ways,” Underwood said. “He’s got the length, the size. Downhill he can overpower you at the rim with that length.

“He’s got just uncanny quick hands and can bother you with steals on the defensive side.”

Arkansas 6-7 freshman forward Jordan Walsh, like Black and Smith, was a McDonald’s All-American. He’s averaging 7.2 points and 4.1 rebounds.

“I think all of those guys have done a great job,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said of Black, Smith and Walsh. “Three guys that have started most of the year when they have been available.

“Not many programs have started three freshmen like we have for the majority of the season.”

Black, who wore a boot on his left foot on Sunday when he talked with the media, took part in Arkansas’ open practice on Wednesday.

“I’m feeling good,” Black said.

Black is averaging 34.7 minutes to lead the SEC despite dealing with various ailments throughout the season. He scored 26 points against Louisville and Creighton at the Maui Invitational when Smith was out.

“We had a our little stretch game where it was tough for us, but our teammates did a good job of keeping us confident and just ready to move on to the next game,” Black said of himself, Smith and Walsh. “They trusted us all year, and I think we’re doing a solid job.”

Walsh said the season has been filled with highs and lows for him individually as well as for the team. He scored 10 or more points in 11 games with a high of 18 against Oklahoma.

“Nobody is going to have a perfect season and nobody is going to have just a horrible season,” Walsh said. “It’s always going to be those ups and downs.

“We’ve had a lot all the way up, all the way down. Now it’s just taking all that experience together and using it to create a win.”

In Smith’s second comeback this season, he scored 26 points against Georgia, 25 at Tennessee and 24 at Alabama. Earlier in the season when Smith came back from his knee issue for the first time, he scored 21 points against Oklahoma.

“I think Nick has given them an offensive punch in his return that has helped them,” Underwood said.

Self update

Kansas Coach Bill Self didn’t meet with the media on Wednesday in Wells Fargo Arena but was at the Jayhawks’ practice.

Norm Roberts, Kansas’ top assistant coach, filled in for Self with the media so he could get some rest before practice.

Self, whose Jayhawks play Howard today, was released from a Kansas City-area hospital on Sunday after undergoing a procedure to treat blocked arteries in his heart.

“He’s doing well, he’s getting better all the time,” Roberts said. “We’re hopeful, and everything is day-to-day with him. But if you ask our guys, he got after them pretty good today so he was doing really well.”

Back in Des Moines

Arkansas is playing in Des Moines for the first time today, but Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman has some game experience in Iowa’s capital city.

Before Musselman was hired at Arkansas, he coached his last game at Nevada in Wells Fargo Arena when Florida beat the Wolf Pack 70-61 in a first-round NCAA Tournament game on March 21, 2019.

When Musselman was a G-League coach with the Reno Bighorns in 2010-11 and Los Angeles D-Fenders in 2011-12 he also coached games in Des Moines against the Iowa Energy, which are now called the Wolves.

Win it for Ronnie

Ronnie Brewer, the Razorbacks’ recruiting coordinator, was 0-2 as an Arkansas player against Illinois.

Brewer was a freshman when he scored 11 points in the No. 11 Illini’s 84-61 victory over Arkansas in Chicago.

The next season, Brewer scored 24 points when No. 3 Illinois beat Arkansas 72-60 in North Little Rock.

Illinois is 5-0 all-time against Arkansas. The Illini also beat the Razorbacks 65-53 in Champaign, Ill., during the 1949-50 season, 94-91 in Chicago during the 2001-02 season and 62-58 in North Little Rock during the 2002-03 season.

Today’s game is the first time the Razorbacks have played the Illini in the postseason.


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