Razorbacks on a roll with Smith ready to return to action ‘soon’

Arkansas guard Nick Smith Jr. (3) drives around Oklahoma guard Milos Uzan (12) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

I’m not a Magic Eight Ball, but if you shook me up and then asked me if Arkansas Razorback freshman guard Nick Smith Jr. would play in the Hogs’ 5 p.m. Saturday contest against the Mississippi State Bulldogs in Bud Walton Arena, I’d say “signs point to yes.”

Fourth-year Arkansas coach Eric Musselman is very coy if not protective about announcing starting lineups or talking about playing time in exact terms prior to a game with the media.

I assume he wants to keep opponents guessing a little bit, and that he doesn’t want to box himself into a corner publicly by talking about minutes.

Musselman rarely talks a great deal about injuries or injured players at all, other than perhaps just acknowledging them.

So when Musselman said that Smith has been practicing with the Razorbacks lately in his Wednesday press conference to preview Saturday’s game with the Bulldogs (16-8, 4-7 SEC), it was sort of surprising that he gave up that information.

Musselman did not exactly say Smith would play on Saturday, but he did say that it appeared like Smith would be back on the floor soon.

It seems to me if Musselman weren’t pretty sure Smith were going to play on Saturday, he would not have said as much as he did.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Mississippi State
When: 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11
Where: Fayetteville

Next 3 games

Feb. 15 — at Texas A&M, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
Feb. 18 — Florida, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)
Feb. 21 — Georgia, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)

Why would Musselman not just announce Smith was back?

Keeping the opponents guessing is one reason, but more likely, the press conference was four days before the game. I hate to say it, but with any injury, there is a possibility of regression over a four-day span.

Smith did not travel with the Hogs (17-7, 6-5 SEC) to Kentucky on Monday before their 88-73 victory at Rupp Arena Tuesday. Smith remained in Fayetteville to work on his conditioning, Musselman said.

Reading the tea leaves as well as Makhi Mitchell’s Instagram feed, it seems Smith is ready to test his knee in game action. ESPN color analyst Jimmy Dykes, who played for Arkansas under the late, great Eddie Sutton, broke the news of Smith’s imminent return during the Kentucky broadcast, saying it appeared Smith would return soon.

Smith was regarded by many as the top recruit in the nation last year, as a preseason All-SEC selection. The young man from Jacksonville has played in only five games this season because of what has been described as “right knee management.” He also missed Arkansas’ first six games because of his knee.

The last game he played in was Dec. 17 in a 76-57 victory over Bradley. In those five games, he averaged 12.8 points, shooting 38% from the field and 30% from the 3-point line.

It seems likely Musselman will ease Smith back into playing time, particularly with how well the Razorbacks have been playing of late. The Hogs have won their last five SEC games and were a play or two away from toppling No. 14 Baylor at Waco on Jan. 28 during the same period.

Smith’s talent was evident in his five appearances, but it did seem like he was pressing to make up for lost time. He often manned the point guard spot as well as playing off the ball at times.

Short of just seeing the young man get his first SEC playing time, it will be interesting to see how Musselman integrates him within the structure that has been working so well with the Hogs lately.

I’m assuming Smith will come off the bench, but who knows, he might start?

Either way with his extensive background in coaching on the professional level, Musselman has more experience at integrating a new talent within a system on a short turnaround than practically any college coach. Musselman routinely dealt with players coming and going as professional developmental-league coach.

Musselman will handle the transition well. The question is how Smith and his teammates handle it?

For Smith, it would seem he needs to go with the flow more than he did back in December. He pressed too much in those five games. He did not play poorly, but did seem to be in a rush a good deal of the time. It’s cliched, but Smith needs to let the game come to him.

As for the Razorbacks’ guard rotation, they need to see that the minutes that Smith soaks up should give them more of a rest from the wear and tear of the season in which Ricky Council IV is averaging 35.3 minutes per game, Anthony Black 35.2, and Devo Davis 33.3. That rest could prove crucial as the season extends into a hopefully long run in the NCAA Tournament.

Smith was an excellent, clutch three-point shooter as a prepster. He can be that on the college level, too, if he focuses on his shot selection. That’s a part of his game that should help open up the floor even more for the Razorbacks.

Now, Smith has an excellent mid-range game, too, and he is slithery smooth taking the ball to the hole. He’s adept at wiggling through creases that other guards can’t. Though slender at 6-5, 185, he’s stronger than he appears. He’s also an adept passer.

Razorback fans are no doubt already revved up from the Hogs’ recent run, punctuated by perhaps their best performance of the season by routing Kentucky at Rupp Arena. Smith returning to play — if he does — Saturday should make for an special atmosphere at Bud Walton Arena, a venue where incredible crowds are the expectation night in and night out.

However, that does make this game ripe for a letdown by the Hogs. The Razorbacks were a hair away from toppling a years old shooting percentage record last Tuesday, hitting 62.7 percent of their shots against Kentucky. The Razorbacks average shooting 48% from the field, which is very good, but it’s unlikely they will shoot as well as they did against Kentucky again this season.

The Bulldogs are hardly a team the Razorbacks can afford to look past with the huge games they have coming up, starting with Wednesday’s trip to Texas A&M to play an Aggie squad that is tied with No. 6 Tennessee for second place in the SEC.

But Musselman has said what this team is doing best right now is taking one game at a time. That’s impressive for a squad that counts on so many freshmen and transfers.

The Razorbacks have just seven more chances to improve their NCAA resume before the SEC Tournament at Nashville on March 8-12.

Their final three league games are at No. 3 Alabama on Feb. 25, at Tennessee on Feb. 28, and then they close out the regular season on March 4 against Kentucky, in a game that is likely to be the final one at Walton Arena for many of the players on this squad, made up of senior transfers and potential one-and-done freshmen.

As this season edges forward, the Hogs and their fans need to treasure these last handful of regular-season games and make the most out of them.

March Madness is on its way, and just like the last two seasons, the Razorbacks seem to be putting it all together at the right time.

Saturday’s Games

11 a.m. — Kentucky at Georgia ESPN
Noon — South Carolina at Ole Miss SEC Network
1 p.m. — No. 3 Alabama at Auburn ESPN
2:30 p.m. — Vanderbilt at Florida SEC Network
5 p.m. — Miss. St. at Arkansas ESPNU
5 p.m. — Missouri at No. 6 Tennessee SEC Network
7:30 p.m. — Texas A&M at LSU SEC Network

SEC Standings

Texas A&M9-217-7
Miss. St.4-716-8
Ole Miss2-910-14
S. Carolina1-108-16