Hogs fight through jet lag to K.O. Troy late

Arkansas guard Jordan Walsh (13) and Troy guard Nelson Phillips fight for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

It’s no secret that there is an adjustment period for college basketball teams that play in holiday basketball tournaments several time zones away from their home territory like the Arkansas Razorbacks did last week in the Maui (Hawaii) Invitational.

The travel is excruciating, and the adjustment in sleep patterns doesn’t just happen like flipping a switch.

Longtime Razorback hoops fans might remember that one of the best Hog basketball teams ever lost its opening SEC contest of the 1994-95 season to a good but not great Ole Miss squad at Oxford in its first game back from playing in a tournament on the islands.

If veterans like Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman, Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel and the rest could stub their toe in such a situation, it’s not inconceivable that a relatively inexperienced squad at playing together like Eric Musselman’s Hogs this year might have its struggles in a similar travel situation with an experienced Troy squad that saw an opportunity to make a point against a “name” opponent.

That was the case for the bulk of Monday’s Razorback game against the Troy Trojans. The Razorbacks trailed for the longest time, swapped leads for awhile, and then finally took control of the the game with their defense to post a 74-61 victory that wasn’t as easy as the final score may have made it seem.

Ricky Council IV, a supremely athletic transfer from Wichita State who is blossoming into a fine basketball player in Musselman’s system, led the Hogs with 27 points, punctuating the victory with a monstrous Stature-of-Liberty-like dunk that nearly brought down the rafters late in the game.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: San Jose State
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Next 5 games

Dec. 6 – UNC Greensboro
Dec. 10 – Oklahoma (in Tulsa, Okla.)
Dec. 17 – Bradley (in North Little Rock)
Dec. 21 — UNC Asheville
Dec. 28 — at LSU

It punctuated a late 17-3 Razorback run that wrestled the game away from Troy, making the game an election sure for the Hogs. Musselman credited Council for playing with a lot of confidence, energy, and joy, and said the young man delivered the knock-out blow with his 35-foot, late-clock 3-point basket.

“It was huge,” Musselman said. “I thought it took spirit away from Troy. Troy came in with a really great game plan. It was a momentum-changing shot.”

Along with Council, Anthony Black, who was honored as co-SEC Freshman for the Week for his superb work in the Maui Invitational last week, had another strong all-around game with 14 points, 3 assists, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals.

Big man Makhi Mitchell had his best game of the season so far with 14 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks.

“Being a dynamic roller, he plays really hard, practices really hard,” Musselman said of Mitchell. “So does his brother [Mak’hel Mitchell] and so does Kamani [Johnson]. When you play hard. you get minutes.”

Kamani Johnson, hero of the Hogs’ win over San Diego State at Maui, made 6-of-8 free throws to score 8 and grabbed 3 rebounds and made a steal while adding his special kind of energy and toughness to the Razorbacks’ effort.

Usual starter Devo Davis is taking some time away from the team for personal reasons.

“We’re respecting Devo’s privacy, and all of our thoughts are with him,” Musselman said following the game. “That’s where it is right now.”

The impact of Davis’ loss at this juncture didn’t cost the Hogs’ a game, but it was a loss and meant the squad had to adjust.

“Devo plays the ninth most minutes in SEC,” Musselman said. “We were going to have an adjustment.”

Nick Smith Jr., the nation’s top high school recruit, played his first official minutes for the Hogs this season, coming off a knee injury. It was an inauspicious start with the freshman not scoring but grabbing a rebound in six minutes on the floor. Still, it was a good acclimation period for him as he works himself into game shape.

“What he did tonight is really, really hard,” Musselman said.

With his extensive experience as a professional coach, Musselman said he’s been down a similar path several times before. Reintegrating a talented player who has been injured into a team that has already developed good floor chemistry is a process.

Musselman said he thought about putting Smith back into the game several times in the second half when the game was tight, but elected not to after the 12-minute mark.

“The biggest thing I kept thinking of was that he was going to have four days of practice leading up to the next game, Musselman said. “Nick’s really anxious to play, and we’re really anxious to have him play. I knew the first game — and it could be an NBA all-star — it is not an easy situation for a player. You have both teams being six or seven games in while they player is slowly progressing.”

Musselman said when and how much to play Smith is tricky at this juncture.

“His teammates are excited for him,” Musselman said. “It’s just not an easy situation for a young man to be in. Through these next practices and next two games, the schedule lines up good because we have two more home games coming up. We probably could have waited for him to put on the uniform, quite frankly, until Saturday, but he wanted to be a great teammate, and he wants to contribute.

“Now Game 1 for him is out of the way, which I think is a good thing. It’s not easy for a player to jump in like that, especially for a player who hasn’t had a lot of live practice. Let’s face it, we are just back from Maui after going three games in three days. We’re not going to practice live for a Monday game.”

Trevon Brazile, who has been outstanding for the Hogs so far this season, may have shown the effects of jet lag the most. Averaging 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds a game coming in, Brazile was off, scoring just 3 points and suffering 5 turnovers.

Musselman was pleased with the work of the Mitchell twins and Johnson in this game and other recent outings. He said as the Razorbacks move toward their SEC opener on Dec,. 28 at LSU, expect the Razorbacks to play with bigger lineups.

“As we get into our roster management, we are a little bit bigger than we have been, Musselman said. “When we get into the SEC, there will be games where we play bigger than we have in the past. It’s why we went out and recruited more size.”

Musselman also said performance in practice dictates time on the hardwood.

“The one thing about playing here is if you practice hard, you contribute when you are given minutes, (you get more time),” Musselman said. “Kamani is another example. Kamani did not play much in two games in Maui, but when called upon, he forced my or our hand. We couldn’t take him out of the game, he was playing with so much energy.

“So with Makhi and Makhel, our culture is much different than what they have been used to. It took time… but slowly and surely they began to meet the expectations we had in practice and when they are put in a game. Then you add the fact they are really talented.”

The Mitchell twins are experienced seniors, but they are still new to Arkansas’ programs as transfers.

“I think a lot of our freshmen — every freshman in the country — are going through some kind of learning curve, whether they are playing or not,” Musselman said. “Kel and Kai are starting to figure out what the expectations are. They’ve done a great job. They are big bodies who are talented, and they have experience.”

Considering the various issues the Razorbacks were facing from jet lag, to missing a key starter in Davis, to reintegrating Smith into the roster as well as facing a solid opponent in Troy, the fact the Hogs ran away with the game late continues to show how much potential this Razorback team has.