Arkansas' trust in Davis on display in win over Georgia

Arkansas guard Davonte Davis defends during a game against Georgia on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Charlie Kaijo/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — The Bud Walton Arena crowd rose to its feet. Arkansas men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman pointed to Davonte "Devo" Davis, telling him to check into Saturday’s game against Georgia.

Davis had missed the previous three games after stepping away from the team for an undisclosed reason, last playing in the blowout loss to Ole Miss 17 days earlier.

And now here he was, coming back after two-and-a-half weeks of uncertainty. Davis and Musselman met and talked about his potential return, having announced it on Monday’s radio show. They lifted weights together and made a plan for his return — primarily concerning his conditioning.

Public address announcer Jon Williams, at the 17:23 mark of the first half, announced Davis’ name as he stepped over the Razorback logo superimposed over the Arkansas state outline. A standing ovation commenced for someone who has been a major part of three Sweet 16s and two Elite 8s.

“That was my assumption, that would happen,” Musselman said. “Very thankful for the fans that that’s how, when he came in, that’s how they responded.”

Davis showed some potential rustiness late in the 78-75 win, missing what could have turned out to be a crucial free throw, having a bad turnover in the final minute — before sprinting and contesting the would-be go-ahead shot — and fouling Georgia guard Justin Hill on a three-point shot, but was a crucial part of the result. Musselman and guards El Ellis and Tramon Mark all said so postgame.

The senior guard showed grit that Arkansas missed in his absence, and potentially in some games he appeared in prior to his time away. His first involvement was an offensive rebound. His lone field goal was a deep three-pointer where he nearly hovered over the state outline. He had crucial steals, fought through screens, defended Georgia’s 4 position and was an important piece of most everything the Razorbacks did.

Perhaps the loudest part of Davis’ evening was how much Musselman trusted him. Davis is a known quantity in a season of inconsistencies, which is a needed commodity.

He played 35 minutes, only coming off for brief stints.

“He did ask to come out tonight, which, since I’ve been coaching him, that’s the first time I can remember him asking to get a quick blow,” Musselman said. 

Even with some of the late-game mistakes and lapses, Musselman stuck with Davis, a known and trusted quantity who had some head-scratching plays and some brilliance.

“He really busted his behind this week this week to play catch up a little bit from a conditioning standpoint,” Musselman said. “He played really hard. He had some big loose balls and he’s a guy that understands all four positions on the floor.”

Davis’ stats: 4 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and the Razorbacks outscored Georgia by 8 points in his 35 minutes. It may not be the kind of performance that normally elicits an in-depth view, but that’s what comes with time away paired with some highlights and some gasp-inducers. 

Davis’ late assist to Makhi Mitchell was impressive. His late intercepted pass — his lone turnover — was ugly.

But Davis’ 35 minutes on the floor shows the faith Musselman and his teammates have in him.

“It was good having Devo back, especially his IQ on the defensive end, offensive end,” Mark said. “We looked fundamentally sound tonight, it was good for us."

“It’s great to have Devo back,” Ellis added. “He was aggressive; he was making plays. That’s what he does every night.”

That’s Davis. Some wonder, some frustration, but a known character. Perhaps best put: The Devo Davis Experience.

His performance was maybe not a standing-ovation type, but it was worthy of a win even with the hiccups. Musselman recognized that, as did the rest of the team. And that’s where the internal applause comes.

“Devo changes things for us,” Musselman said. “Defensively, we’re much different with Devo in there.”