Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year four times and has been inducted to the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.
NCAA Tournament Report: Kamani sets tone, Walsh solid, Smith off
Arkansas forward Kamani Johnson (20) reacts, Thursday, March 16, 2023, during the first half of the NCAA Tournament first-round game against Illinois at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.
DES MOINES, Iowa — University of Arkansas forward Kamani Johnson played 12 minutes and 12 seconds against Illinois on Thursday, but he had more offensive rebounds than the Illini’s entire team.
Johnson, a 6-7 senior, had four offensive rebounds to three for Illinois to help the Razorbacks win 73-63 in a first-round NCAA Tournament game in Wells Fargo Arena.
All five of Johnson’s rebounds came in the first half, including a rebound basket he made through contact with 43 seconds left to give Arkansas a 36-26 lead.
“I thought Kamani did a phenomenal job for us setting the tone early on the offensive glass,” Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman said. “He gives us a physicality as well.”
Johnson has more offensive rebounds (40) than defensive (32) this season.
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“I’m kind of a spark plug of this team,” Johnson said. “I think that’s been my strength all of my career, is getting offensive rebounds and extra possessions for my team.
“That’s what the coaches have stressed to me, and I think I’ve built that role throughout my career. It was great to do it today.”
The biggest offensive rebound of Johnson’s two years with the Razorbacks — after transferring from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock in January 2021 — came on a tip-in at the end of regulation of Arkansas’ 78-74 overtime victory over San Diego State in the Maui Invitational earlier this season.
It was a crucial victory over the Aztecs, who won the Mountain West regular-season and tournament titles, for Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament resume.
“The name of Kamani’s game is rebounding,” Razorbacks freshman forward Jordan Walsh said. “You saw it against San Diego State in Maui, and you saw it again today. He’s a rebounding guy. So we’re not surprised to see him do it.”
After Johnson’s basket at the end of the first half on Thursday, freshman guard Nick Smith jumped into him and gave him a chest bump.
Smith is 6-5 and 185 pounds and Johnson is 230 pounds, but Smith accidentally knocked him to the floor.
“If Nick could stay, Coach [Sam] Pittman might have to put him on the football team as a defensive back,” Johnson said with a smile. “I didn’t expect him to knock me over, but it was great to see how excited he was for me.
“That’s what we need — energy and guys being happy for each other making big plays. We’re together right now, growing in March, and nobody wants to lose, nobody wants to go home.”
Smith, who is expected to enter the NBA Draft after this season and be a lottery pick, laughed when told Johnson said he should play football.
“No, no, no,” Smith said. “I’m too skinny to play football.”
Asked about knocking Johnson down, Smith laughed again.
“I didn’t know Kamani was that weak,” Smith said, sitting next to Johnson in the locker room. “I just gave him a little shove and he fell down.
“I thought it was hilarious.”
Johnson didn’t play in Arkansas’ previous game — a 67-61 loss to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament — but Musselman said he wanted to start him Thursday because of his previous NCAA Tournament experience.
Walsh a plus
Razorbacks freshman forward Jordan Walsh had solid stats against Illinois with 6 points, 5 rebounds and 3 steals in 27 minutes off the bench.,
But the number regarding Walsh that really stood out was Arkansas outscoring the Illini by 22 points when he was on the court.
“He did everything,” Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman said. “He got loose balls, he altered shots. He ran the floor both offensively and defensively and gave great support defense to his teammates.”
Walsh helped Arkansas force 17 turnovers.
“I thought he put great heat on the ball, great pressure on the ball,” Musselman said. “He rushed the quarterback.”
Walsh, averaging 7.4 points and 4.2 rebounds, said scoring isn’t a priority for him.
“I’m not the type of guy who is ever looking to score 15 points a game or anything like that,” Walsh said. “I feel like every team needs a glue guy out there that can hold us all together if something goes off the rails and do the things to help us win.
“Whether it’s diving on the floor to get a loose ball, or getting a stop or grabbing a loose ball rebound. Helping the guards get the ball up the court. Whatever you can do to help the team win.
“Those are just as important as hitting a three-point basket. I’m just glad to help anyway I can towards winning, because that’s my ultimate goal. Is to win as many games as we can.”
Freshman guard Anthony Black said Walsh “affects winning at the highest level” for the Razorbacks.
“He did a great job giving us energy today, especially on defense, and making winning plays,” Black said.
Walsh guarded Illinois 6-9 senior forward Matthew Mayer much of the game and helped hold him to two points — both on free throws. Mayer, averaging 12.8 points, shot 0 of 6 from the field.
“Jordan was making it hard for Mayer, and he’s one of their top guys,” Arkansas senior forward Kamani Johnson said. “What Jordan does for us might not always show in the boxscore, but he’s very important to our team.”
Arkansas beat Illinois without a big offensive game from freshman guard Nick Smith.
Smith, expected to be an NBA Draft lottery pick, scored 4 points on 2-of-10 shooting. He averaged 19.5 points the previous six games after missing 19 games earlier this season because of a right knee management issue.
After the game Smith had ice on his knee, but he said it felt fine and wasn’t the reason for his shooting struggles.
“Probably just mechanics, the way I move,” Smith said. “Just having a feel for the game.
“It was kind of weird starting off for me, but I just have to be prepared next time. I felt this environment, so next game I’ll be more prepared to play.”
Arkansas came into Thursday’s game shooting 69% on the season on free throws, including 65% the previous eight games.
The Razorbacks were much better at the line against the Illini, hitting 22 of 29 for 75.9%.
Junior guard Ricky Council hit 11 of 12 free throws against Illinois after being 33 of 48 in the previous eight. Anthony Black hit 4 of 6 free throws and Nick Smith and Jordan Walsh each hit 2 of 3.
“John Daly will be happy,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said of the former Razorback golfer who has won PGA and British Open titles. “He gives me texts after every game about our free-throw shooting.
“I’m sure he’ll give me a positive text tonight.”
The Razorbacks shot 75% or better for the eight time in 33 games.
Arkansas beat Illinois for the first time and is now 1-5 in the series
With the Illini’s 5-0 record going into the game, they had the most victories by an Arkansas opponent without the Razorbacks beating them, according to Hogstats.com.
New York University, Southern California and Villanova now have the most victories against the Razorbacks without a loss, according to Hogstats.com, with 3-0 records.
Arkansas improved to 49-34 all-time in NCAA Tournament games, including 7-1 against teams currently in the Big Ten.
The Razorbacks’ Big Ten loss was to Iowa, 82-72, in 1999. Their victories over teams now in the Big Ten include 78-68 over Purdue in 1983; 63-54 over Iowa in 1985; 76-68 over Michigan in 1994; 86-80 over Penn State in 1996; 74-65 over Nebraska in 1998; and 86-72 over Indiana in 2008.
Illinois fell to 42-34 in NCAA Tournament games and has the third-most victories without a national championship behind Purdue (44) and Oklahoma (43).
Purdue, a No. 1 seed, plays Fairleigh Dickinson tonight in Columbus, Ohio. Oklahoma didn’t make the NCAA Tournament.
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