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.
X-factor Walsh a 'big piece of the puzzle' for Hogs
Arkansas forward Jordan Walsh is shown during an NCAA Tournament game against Kansas on Saturday, March 18, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
LAS VEGAS — It wasn’t a play that showed up in the box score of the University of Arkansas men’s basketball team’s 72-71 victory over defending national champion Kansas last Saturday.
There is no stat line in a box score for tipped balls that lead to critical free throws.
But the tipped ball by Razorbacks freshman forward Jordan Walsh is a big reason Arkansas advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 and will play Connecticut on Thursday night in Las Vegas in the West Region semifinals.
After Razorbacks guard Ricky Council missed the second of two free-throw attempts with 23 seconds left, players for both teams scrambled for the ball, but Walsh spun away from Kansas forward Jalen Wilson, tipped it and Council grabbed it.
“I think I got credit for the rebound, but I’ll gladly give the credit to Jordan,” Council said. “He tipped it, it went off Jalen Wilson and then came to me.
“That was a big play. Maybe the play of the game for us.”
Council drove the lane after getting the tipped ball, was fouled and hit two free throws with 20 seconds left to extend Arkansas’ lead to 70-67.
The No. 1 seed Jayhawks didn’t pull closer than one point on their final two possessions.
Walsh credited Arkansas senior forward Kamani Johnson — a relentless offensive rebounder — with giving him valuable advice.
“What’s crazy about that play was I wasn’t even about to spin off of [Wilson] and go that way until I talked to Kamani,” Walsh said. “And you know Kamani — he’s the offensive rebounding expert on our team.
“So after Ricky made the first one, I went over to Kamani, and I was like, ‘Hey Kamani, so I should [criss-cross] and I come over, and you come over?’
“And he was like, ‘No. No, don’t do that. Just spin off of him and the ball will come straight to you.’
“I was like, ‘OK, I got you.’ And so I lined up, I spun off of him, and the ball came off the rim perfectly.”
Walsh is 6-7, but has a 7-2 wingspan.
“With my long arms, I was able to hit it off the backboard a little bit so that it bounced back towards Ricky, and then he ended up catching it and got another foul,” Walsh said. “So things worked out perfectly.
“Credit to Kamani for telling me to spin.”
Credit to Walsh for the Razorbacks outscoring the Jayhawks by 12 points in the 34 minutes he was on the floor.
In Arkansas’ 73-63 victory over Illinois in last Thursday’s first-round game, Walsh was even more impactful in his 27 minutes as the Razorbacks outscored the Illini by 22 points.
Walsh had solid box score numbers against Illinois and Kansas — 16 points, 7 rebounds and 5 steals in the 2 games — but his defense and hustle were where he excelled.
“Jordan does all the right things,” said Council, a junior guard averaging a team-high 16.1 points per game. “He doesn’t force anything. He wants to rebound and he wants to defend.
“He realizes his role is maybe not what he thought it was going to be coming into the season, but he’s bought in to doing all the little things.
“When you have somebody who defends, who gets rebounds, who deflects passes like Jordan, that’s a big reason why we’re advancing.
“He’s a big piece to the puzzle for us.”
Walsh — one of three Arkansas freshmen who were McDonald’s High School All-Americans last season along with guards Anthony Black and Nick Smith — is averaging 7.2 points and 4.1 rebounds in 24.6 minutes. He has played in all 35 games with 22 starts this season.
Earlier in the season, Walsh endured a five-game stretch in SEC play where he shot 29.3% (12 of 41) and was 1 of 17 on three-pointers.
Defending without being called for fouls also has been a challenge at times for Walsh. He’s fouled out eight times and been called for 104 fouls.
“When you’re a freshman, you have to get used to things, and it can be difficult when you come here and things don’t go your way,” Johnson said of Walsh’s development this season and now playing his best in the NCAA Tournament games. “If anything, it’s just credit to him.
“When the lights are bright, he’s showing up and performing. That’s what we need from him right now, and that’s what we’re getting.
“I think he’s been a great addition in March and kind of an X-factor in why we’re winning these games.”
Johnson said Walsh has figured out his role on the team to be rewarded with consistent minutes from Coach Eric Musselman.
“You learn here quick that everybody can’t score, and you have to find your role and be a star in your role, and that’s how you’re going to get on the floor and get minutes for Muss,” Johnson said. “I think Jordan just adapted really, really well.
“He kind of got down a little bit [earlier in the season], but I like the way that he bounced back and just bought in.
“Right now, I think Jordan is just super bought-in to what Muss is saying and the staff is saying and how we do things here, and that’s why he’s having the success he’s having.”
Walsh said he takes pride in making plays like the tipped ball to Council that help lead to victories.
“I feel like the plus-minus [stat when he’s on the court] is just a reflection of what you do to help the team win,” he said. “With me being a guy who’s going to dive on the floor for loose balls, or guard their best player and get a stop or two.”
Walsh, whose high-scoring games are 18 points against Bradley and 13 against LSU and Missouri, said his focus has been on defense.
“Coming into college as a McDonald’s All-American, most people think you want to go out and score 20 points,” he said. “But that wasn’t really my mentality coming in.
“To me, coming in was just, if I can help us win at a high level in March and hopefully have us playing in the last game for the championship, then I’ll be able to achieve the things I want without having to score 20 points or come off ball screens the whole game.
“My role has fallen into being that glue guy. I’ve been successful at it so far, so I’m going to keep doing whatever it takes to win.
“That’s it. That’s what I do.”
Walsh said that going into the Kansas game, Musselman told him his defensive assignments would include all of the Jayhawks’ perimeter players. He also covered Wilson — a 6-8 senior all-American — at times.
On one Kansas offensive possession, Wilson’s shot went over the backboard when Walsh was guarding him.
“You know what happens when you don’t pay your water bill? They cut it off,” Johnson said. “That’s what Jordan does to some people. He just cuts their water off with his defense.
“We put him on people and we know they’re going to have a rough night.”
Walsh said he’s glad to be playing his best on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“I feel like March brings out the dog in people,” Walsh said. “It’s bringing out the dog in me.
“It’s boosted all attributes of my game. I feel like it’s made me to be even more of a competitor than I already was.
“I feel like for those reasons, my confidence has skyrocketed to be able to help my team win in any situation.”
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