Kamani Johnson Talks UConn

By Otis Kirk

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row as they take on No. 4-seed UConn Thursday at 6:15 p.m. in the T-Mobile Arena.

UConn (27-8) advanced to this point by downing No. 13 Iona 87-63 and No. 5 Saint Mary’s 70-55. No. 8 Arkansas obviously defeated No. 9 Illinois 73-63 and No. 1 Kansas 72-71 to once again seem to be peaking at right time under Eric Musselman. 

Arkansas (22-13) struggled with a couple of key injuries much of the season and inconsistent play. The Razorbacks only returned two players from last season and too probably contributed to some of the inconsistencies. Kamani Johnson and Davonte “Devo” Davis returned and both have played a key role in the Hogs advancing. 

Davis’ stats pop out to one when watching the game, but Johnson has started both NCAA Tournament games after just getting that honor four times previously all season. He’s averaging only 11.6 minutes per game this season. Against Illinois he had five points and five rebounds. In the win over the Jayhawks, Johnson had four points and pulled down 10 boards which was a game-high for both teams despite only playing 19 minutes. 

After the win over Kansas, Musselman mentioned Johnson in the same breath as Davis and Ricky Council IV.

“We’re celebrating back there because we have such incredible respect for Kansas, defending champions, MVP of their league in No. 10, Jalen Wilson,” Musselman said. “They are a hard, hard, hard team to prepare for. Didn’t play defense as well as we normally do but we wanted to create more pace in the second half and certainly did that scoring 45 points and then the clutch free throw shooting by Ricky, 10 of 11 in the game, the second-chance points was a big part of our win today. Kamani, 6 offensive rebounds, 10 rebounds, and then the play of Devo Davis taking the ball to the basket and middle pick-and-roll, his defense all game and then once he fouled out we were able to, you know, win! The offensive rebound off the missed free throw was incredible.”

Johnson knows that UConn will be one of the best teams Arkansas has played this season even though the Hogs have faced one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Of the 16 teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament, Arkansas has faced five of them if one counts a preseason game against Texas. Johnson talked about what he has seen from UConn so far.

“We started looking at them right after their game ended and we knew we were going to play them,” Johnson said. “We had a practice last night and kind of a film and walkthrough session. Obviously we are going to practice and go over them from here on out. I think we match up well with them. It’s just going to be another war. Obviously, they have two pretty good bigs, and they surround the bigs with pretty good pieces. We’ve been looking at them, but I think we match up well with them.”

Junior forward Adam Sanoga (6-9, 245) leads the Huskies in scoring 17.3 and rebounding 7.5 each game. Johnson is impressed with him even comparing to Kentucky’s Oscar Tshebwe.

“He’s a super active big,” Johnson said. “He’s kind of Oscar-like with his motor in how he crashes the glass and how aggressive and physical he is. He’s super skilled in the post, too. We’ve been watching film on him, and we’re game-planning for it. We’ll be fine.”

While Muss touched on it after the Kansas win, but one thing Johnson does is crash the offensive boards. In 10 games this season, Johnson has had more offensive rebounds than those on defense.

“Just the game plan for us Muss always says is to get extra possessions,” Johnson said. “Especially in March the games come down to a couple possessions, as you guys see. So, just try to get extra possessions for the team. That’s kind of been Muss’ theme and game plan ever since I’ve been here. So I’m kind of just trying to be a star in my role.”

Johnson has had to be strong mentally this season. He has not played in some games, started others and came off the bench in some. Yet, he has managed to stay ready no matter the role.

“I think I’ve just always been a team player and I can just do whatever I can do to help the team win,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of been my mindset. I know I have more experience than anybody here, so I’ve kind of got to be the voice from the bench so I can help in that way too. I think you’ve always got to stay ready for your moment. That’s something I learned about being here and playing under Muss. You know, there might be games where you don’t play, but you’re just as important as the guys on the court. I think everybody on our team understands that. Playing for Muss, you just learn that.”

Arkansas entered the NCAA Tournament not playing good basketball. They lost six of the last nine games before the tournament including four of the last five. 

“Our goal from the start of the season was to win a national championship,” Johnson said. “Of course, some injuries and things happened. It felt good to get to the Sweet 16, but our goal is still the same. I don’t think anybody here is satisfied. We’re going down to Vegas to get us two more and then go down to Houston. That’s kind of our game plan, and I think everybody in the locker room has the same mindset.”

Johnson also was very complimentary of Musselman and how he seems to always have his team prepared and ready in the NCAA Tournament. 

“I just think it’s the preparation,” Johnson said. “We’re probably — I’m not even going to say probably — we’re definitely the most prepared team going into a game. I think in March when you get matched up with different conferences and different teams and different styles, that helps a lot. And then we always kind of tend to peak in March. It’s kind of weird. I feel like I’m having deja vu or something. I don’t really have an answer to that. But I guess it’s just Muss’ philosophy or something. I don’t know.”

Thursday’s game will be televised on CBS. 

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