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Sports Strength

Nick Smith Jr Is Lethal In Transition

Cultivating a winning culture in a locker room is an age-old dilemma that coaches have been struggling with since the beginning of time. Getting your players to buy-in and put everything they are into that sport is no small feat. Eric Musselman, the head coach of the University of Arkansas men’s basketball team, has created that environment in just two short years. In-turn, Musselman has captured the hearts of some of the best recruits in the country and built the top three recruiting classes in the country. The highest ranking of those recruits being a home-town kid by the name of Nick Smith Jr. Smith is the sixth ranked player in his class, and for good reason. 

Nick Smith Jr. is a 6’4” shooting guard out of Jacksonville, Arkansas. What makes Smith so great is what he is able to do in transition. As soon as he gets the ball off of a defensive rebound, Smith is immediately running in transition with rarely anyone being able to keep up. At the McDonald’s All-American game in late-March I was able to witness his speed and IQ on the break in person and it was spectacular. He also participated in the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest, which saw him as the competition’s runner-up. Smith will be a perfect fit to an Arkansas scheme that is hell-bent on running and getting out in transition. 

Nick Smith Jrs. talent has been apparent from a young age. When Smith was just a ninth grader in high school, Musselman was right there recruiting him in his first year as the Arkansas head coach in 2019. Musselman is now seeing that recruitment effort come to fruition as Smith gears up to attend Arkansas this fall. Smith is looking to add to an already explosive lineup with his cunning speed and knack for getting to the hoop on the break. I asked Nick Smith Jr about what it’s been like to watch Arkansas make deep run’s in March the last two seasons and he detailed that experience saying:

“It’s been pretty fun, you know, watching the state of Arkansas and in general just having a good time watching, and you know Arkansas winning. I feel like winning in each and every sport has been fun, the past two years, especially for coach Mussleman and the program, and you know next year the guys we got coming in, we just got it going and just work hard in the summertime you know. it’s not guaranteed we’re gonna make it to the elite 8 next year, but at the same time we have to have that same mindset that we could win a national championship and that’s what we’re gonna try and do.” – Nick Smith Jr.

As the one-and-done becomes ever more prevalent as each season passes, it’s not crazy to say that Nick Smith Jr. could be on an NBA floor in just a year’s time. Under the guidance of Coach Musselman, the ceiling is the roof for Nick Smith Jr. I can’t wait to see what he and the rest of Arkansas’ stacked class can accomplish this upcoming season. The future is bright for Arkansas, and especially for Nick Smith Jr.

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Sports Strength

The Arkansas Razorbacks Demand Your Respect

For the first few months of the season, the Muss Bus was busted— the tires were all flat, taillights were cracked, the paintjob were peeling, the transmission was irredeemably borked. On January 8th, the Arkansas Razorbacks dropped their fifth game out of their last six, losing to decided non-powerhouses Oklahoma, Hofstra (Hofstra!!!), Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. At the time, they were somewhere in the neighborhood of the 80th best team in the country with one of the worst defenses in the SEC; they seemed like the kind of squad who must unhappily endure the rest of the season because there’s no other alternative. 

After that 0-3 start to SEC play, though, head coach Eric Musselman and the Razorbacks have been nearly unbeatable. They’re 12-1 in their last 13 games with Quad One wins over Alabama, Tennessee, LSU and then-top ranked Auburn. Adjusted for the strength of schedule, Arkansas has been the fourth best team in the entire country during this stretch, according to Bart Torvik. 

During this dominant stretch, Arkansas has rediscovered the stifling defense that fueled their Elite Eight run last year; since January 9th, Arkansas has the best defense in college basketball. They’re a swarming, unrelenting unit, climbing into the chest of ball-handlers and turning each dribble into a chore. This ball pressure redounds throughout the rest of their defense, resulting in forced turnovers and contested shots—Arkansas forces turnovers on more than 20 percent of possessions and holds teams to the second lowest effective field goal percentage. Even if they don’t have a single fearsome rim protector like Christian Koloko at Arizona or Chet Holmgren at Gonzaga, they succeed because of their collective irksomeness. Across every position, the Razorbacks place a tremendous amount of stress on the offense, both cognitively and physically. 

Offensively, the Razorbacks opt for a simpler, more prosaic approach: they go fast and hope JD Notae breaks shit. Last year’s SEC Sixth Man of the Year, Notae is the conference’s second-leading scorer, putting up 18.7 points per game. He’s the archetypal, undersized college basketball bucket getter, slashing to the rim with angular, bruising drives and pulling up for gutsy jumpers. He’s a new-age Russ Smith or Frank Mason III; Kemba Walker without the rubbery handle and New York City kabbalism. Flanking Notae, sophomore big man Jaylin Williams is an athletic, funky point-center who offers a nice counterweight on the interior and at the elbows while Au’Diese Toney and Stanley Umude are athletic wings who can stretch the floor in transition. 

But despite their recent greatness, the Razorbacks still aren’t taken all that seriously. In the AP Poll, Arkansas is ranked 18th, below a Tennessee team that they just held to 48 points in a 10 point win. Bracketologists have them pegged as a prospective sixth seed, while putting Providence—a team that is universally considered to kinda suck—on the four-line; on Draftkings, Arkansas’ +1400 odds give them an implied 6.7 percent chance to make the Final Four, By this point, Arkansas has proven that they’re one of the best teams in the country. It’s a cliche that elite guard-play and defense win championships. Luckily, the Razorbacks have both.