FAYETTEVILLE, Ar. (KNWA/KFTA) – Back when it was a common theme among fans and some in the media that Nick Smith Jr. would not return from his “knee management” hiatus, I knew that he would be back. No, I didn’t have any inside information. I just had a strong feeling that this was a McDonald’s All American, five-star, one and done from Arkansas who was not going to miss out on his one chance to compete in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. If college hoops fans go bonkers over watching March Madness think what it must be like to be out there on the floor in the middle of it. To be one of those guys we see in the “One Shining Moment” video shown nationwide after college basketball’s new national champion has been crowned.
For that reason and because I know that he wants to leave Arkansas fans with good memories of a team that so far has been an up and down disappointment, I think we will see Nick Smith Jr.’s best from now until the Hogs are eliminated.
What is his best?
To date it has to be the night he and his teammates faced Georgia in a Bud Walton Arena matchup sandwiched between a win over Florida and a tough two-game swing to Tuscaloosa and on to Knoxville.
He scored 26 points in 28 minutes on the floor against the Bulldogs. But it was how he scored those points that caught the attention of most fans. Smith Jr. was 9 of 14 from two-point range and 5 of 8 on three balls. Oh, he also shot 75% from the free throw line.
There it was. The answer to this team’s shooting woes. Forced to deal with Smith from the outside, Georgia gave up 40 points to Hogs in the paint.
If only he could have sustained that effort, but we know he didn’t.
The Hogs highly-touted freshman scored 24 against Alabama but needed 23 shots to connect on 9 field goals in a three-point loss to the No. 2 ranked Tide. If he had hit just two more of those 23 shots, Arkansas would have won.
The entire team went south against Tennessee but Smith Jr.’s numbers dropped way off. Just 3 of 13 from the floor and 1 of 6 from three-point range, he walked to the locker room with 12 points in Arkansas’ 75-57 loss to the Vols.
In the Hogs regular season finale, Smith Jr. got more aggressive, putting up 31 shots to finish with 25 points but the Hogs lost their third straight game, a 9-point loss to Kentucky.
Except for one huge basket, his night against Auburn in the SEC Tournament might have been considered average. That huge basket was a smooth, high arcing six-foot jumper from the right side, three feet from the baseline, just out of the reach of Auburn’s Allen Flanigan. With :19 left in the game North Little Rock High’s former five-star guard had connected on what for all practical purposes was the game winning shot over former Little Rock Parkview’s four-star guard.
The stat book credited Smith Jr. with just 14 points but that final shot ended a furious Auburn rally that saw the Tigers turn a 15 point deficit into a one-point lead with :39 remaining.
Would this be the beginning of Smith Jr.’s springboard into March Madness? He was red hot in the first half the following night against Texas A&M with 14 points at intermission. But he followed that up with his worst half of basketball in a Hog uniform, going 1 of 8 with a missed free throw and 3 turnovers.
And so Arkansas enters Thursday’s NCAA first round game against Illinois a loser in four of its last five games. Which brings us back to Smith Jr.’s one shot at March Madness. Will it be a short run or will he and his teammates stick around for a while?
“I’m very excited to go out there with my team and execute the game plan and try to get some wins,” he said after Wednesday’s practice at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. “This is what it’s all about right here, win or go home.”
“The excitement,” he continued. “Just the excitement that’s going into this game. The excitement that the fans are gonna have about this game. People at home watching. I know people at home who are gonna be watching. It’s probably going to be the most viewed game tomorrow. I’m going to go out and play my game and live in the moment.”
Hopefully, it will be more than a moment. Razorback fans with strong memories of the Hogs previous two Elite Eight appearances have to hope that now that this young team is in the Big Dance its inconsistencies will vanish.
I can’t say how far they will go. The road to the second weekend is blocked by an inconsistent but dangerous Illinois team with West Region No. 1 seed Kansas likely waiting in the wings. Okay, but this is an Arkansas team with three five-stars, one of them almost certainly the program’s highest freshmen draft pick ever.
It’s Nick Smith Jr.’s time to shine. Arkansas’ turnaround can still happen.