Hogs, UConn Meet Tonight
By Otis Kirk
FAYETTEVILLE — No. 8 Arkansas and No. 4 UConn are set to meet in the Sweet 16 tonight at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.
Eric Musselman has now taken the Razorbacks to the Sweet 16 three years in a row. Arkansas (22-13) has defeated Illinois and Kansas to get this far after ending the season losing six of nine games.
“We’re really happy to be here,” Musselman said. “Guys have played well through two games. I think they’re excited to play an excellent UConn team. And we had a good practice yesterday, a good practice today. Guys are in good spirits and looking forward to competing tomorrow.”
While the Razorbacks have played two very good games, true freshman guard Nick Smith Jr. has struggled. He got six points against Illinois and then was scoreless against the Jayhawks.
“Nick’s one of the most talented players in the country,” Musselman said. “And he’s had some big games for us. 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.
“But, yeah, we’d certainly love Nick to have a big game. But like I said, he’s been in and out of the lineup. It’s hard to do for any player, let alone someone that’s in their freshman year.”
Musselman was asked how Smith is doing emotionally?
“He’s been great in practice,” Musselman said. “He was bouncing around the last two days. I think he’s excited to get another opportunity to play, just as we all are.”
Guard Jordan Hawkins, 6-5, 195, scored 12 points in the win over Saint Mary’s including 4 of 5 from behind the 3-point line. For the season, Hawkins is averaging 15.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists. Musselman is very aware of Hawkins.
“One of the best pure shooters in college basketball,” Musselman said. “He’s got a quick release. He’s got a competent release. Doesn’t need a bunch of dribbles. Can catch and shoot. Can also create a little off the bounce. You can’t let him have separation. You’ve got to ID him as early as possible and try to not let him get any catch-and-shoot-right-away shots.
“Coach (Dan) Hurley does a great job of running multiple things for him off baseline, out-of-bound triple screens, staggered wheel action stuff. And the thing is he does a great job of constant moving. He’s not a guy that’s stationary. When the ball moves he moves. So he’s a difficult cover because of all those reasons.”
The Razorbacks won the battle of the boards against Kansas, but Musselman knows UConn (27-8) presents a big challenge rebounding the basketball.
“They’re relentless on the glass, for sure,” Musselman said. “I think that our teams had nights where we’re really, really good defensive rebounding because that’s obviously the key, is to try to keep them off the offensive glass. That’s one of the defensive themes that we’re trying to create with our team.
“So you’ve got to be physical. They’re a physical team. They send four to the glass almost every time. A lot of teams will send three to the glass and two back. But they, almost every possession they’re sending four to the glass.
“So we’ve got to do a good job defensive rebounding, and then we’ll see how that affects our transition offense as well. But obviously they’re the best rebounding team we played all year and we played against some really good rebounding teams. Texas A&M’s a phenomenal rebounding team. Kentucky, with (Oscar) Tshiebwe, is a great rebounding team. Auburn can rebound the basketball.
“But everyone says UConn is the best rebounding team in the country. And they have two centers that, in my opinion, is the best center combination basically in all of basketball. They basically have a backup that’s a starter on almost every team in a country and is a freshman and had a great year.”
Forward Adama Sanoga, 6-9, 245, leads the Huskies with 17.3 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Davonte “Devo” Davis has stepped up big for Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament. In the win over Kansas, Davis had 25 points and eight rebounds before fouling out. He credits Musselman for much of his and the team’s success.
“It’s fun playing for him,” Musselman said. “His intensity throughout the entire day, it could change, but most of the time it’s high. But my intensity of life and expectations and things like that is high as well. So it’s fun.
“And if you haven’t met him, you probably would be scared because you don’t know how he’s going to come at you. You never know. He comes at you like this or you never know. But it’s fun and it’s exciting. This journey has been really exciting with him. And I’m glad I got to experience it with him.”
Tonight’s game will tip at 6:15 p.m.and televised on CBS.