After tears, Arkansas’ Nick Smith Jr. hopes for joy in Vegas

Arkansas guard Nick Smith Jr. (3) looks to pass as Texas A&M guard Dexter Dennis (0) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Friday, March 10, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Arkansas had just returned to its locker room after knocking out defending national champion and West Region No. 1 seed Kansas 72-71 on Saturday when Nick Smith Jr. could no longer control his emotions.

He sat at his locker as the tears flowed and teammates consoled him, the video taking off on social media.

Smith said he was overjoyed by the victory and the chance to play in the Sweet 16, but losing so much time this season to knee injuries and what he missed out on with his teammates hit him hard.

“Once I got (the crying) out of the way, I celebrated with my guys at the crib,” Smith said Wednesday, a day ahead of No. 8 seed Arkansas’ game against fourth-seeded UConn in the NCAA Tournament’s West Region semifinals. “I moved on to the next. At the end of the day, people in my circle know who I am. People that I talk to every day know who I am.”

Smith, a potential NBA lottery pick, has faced high expectations since signing with the Razorbacks. The 6-foot-5 freshman guard was the USA Today Boys Basketball Player of the Year and 247Sports’ top prospect.

But he missed the first six games this season to injury, averaged 12.8 points in five games and then sat out from mid-December until nearly mid-February.

Smith returned to score more than 20 points three times over a four-game span and entered the NCAA Tournament averaging 14 points.

Then came March Madness, and Arkansas’ most notable recruit in 30 years didn’t meet the moment.

Smith made just 2 of 10 shots and scored six points in the first round against Illinois, and then against Kansas, he took four shots and did not score. Coach Eric Musselman, understanding the urgency and decreased margin for error in the single-elimination tournament, reduced Smith’s playing time from 28 minutes in the opener to 17 in the second round.

“Nick’s one of the most talented players in the country, and he’s had some big games for us,” Musselman said. “He’s been in a tough situation, in and out of the lineup with injuries. It’s not easy for any player to do, let alone when a team’s on a tournament run.”

Musselman said he was hopeful Smith would turn it around, but it’s clear any playing time will be earned.

“We know how he feels to be in a position he’s in and have all the pressure that everybody’s putting on him,” said Arkansas guard Davonte Davis, a childhood friend of Smith’s. “For him to come back, that’s amazing. He’s a young man that a lot of people can’t faze, and it’s tough to be in his world today to be able to take on the things he’s taking on.”

Smith downplayed the notion that he got emotional after the win over Kansas because he wasn’t as big a part of that victory as he’d hoped.

As the video showed, Smith didn’t lose the locker room. His teammates were there quickly to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone.

“We know who he is as a player,” forward Kamani Johnson said. “He knows who he is as a player. We don’t have to give him too much encouragement. He’s a dog, we know he’s a dog, and we know what he can do.”

Arkansas guard Nick Smith Jr. (3) drives up court after stealing the ball as Auburn guard Allen Flanigan (22) gives chase during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament, Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Smith said he hasn’t spoken with his coach about possibly getting more minutes against UConn and, should the Razorbacks advance, against UCLA or Gonzaga on Saturday for the right to go to the Final Four.

“My story’s not over,” Smith said. “I’ve got to keep going and keep pushing through, hoping we can get a win.”

Winning in an Arkansas uniform is especially meaningful for Smith, who is from the Little Rock area. He is considered the program’s best recruit since Corliss Williamson, another Arkansas native who led the Razorbacks to the 1994 national championship before going on to a 12-year NBA career.

“This experience of the Sweet 16 — and I haven’t played the game yet — has been amazing,” Smith said. “When we landed in Vegas, it really doesn’t get much better than this. We’ve got another opportunity to play, and that’s why I came here to play basketball.”