By Otis Kirk
FAYETTEVILLE — No. 11 Arkansas returns to Bud Walton Arena on Saturday with San Jose State coming to Fayetteville.
San Jose State (6-2) and UNC Greensboro are the games this week before the Dec. 10 matchup against Oklahoma in Tulsa. The Spartans have lost to Hofstra and North Texas, but Eric Musselman knows this will be their chance make some noise on the national scene against his Razorbacks.
“I have great respect for Coach (Tim) Miles, for sure,” Musselman said. “Really good coach. I’ve always admired the way his teams execute. As a team, they have a star player in No. 10 (Omari) Moore who can make threes, can get to the basket. Really good one-on-one player. They’ll play him at both the 2 and the 1. They have a lot of shooting, 13 (Alvaro Cardenas), their starting point guard, really good shooter. Has a really good in the lane up-and-under move off of pump fakes.
“No. 15 (Trey) Anderson is a really good shooter with his feet set. (Ibrahima) Diallo, the Ohio State transfer No. 5, one of the best shot blockers in the country. (Robert) Vaihola, the backup center No. 22, will play the 4 and the 5. Does a great job of using his off-hand. Although he’s right-handed, he can finish with his left really well. Then 31 (Tibet Goroner), off the bench who plays the 4, very, very good shooter and an effective basket-cutter as well.”
Moore, 6-6, 195, leads the team in scoring at 13.4 points each outing and is second in rebounding at 6.1. Moore and the Spartans will offer a contrast in playing styles with Arkansas playing a very slow paced game.
“Coach Miles does a really good job of controlling tempo and controlling the game from a pace standpoint,” Musselman said. “They will opportunistically run. Some of their players, they have guys who are really good in transition like Moore (No. 10). But yeah, it’s a team that execution in the half-court seems to be important to them.”
In the win over Troy on Monday night true freshman Nick Smith Jr., who is projected to be lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, made his debut after dealing with knee pain management. Smith only played six minutes, four seconds and missed both shots. What is his situation for San Jose State.
“Yeah, I think that’s a great question,” Musselman said. “I think, you know, because we’re still in rehab mode, where he’s still doing stuff with Matt (Townsend) yesterday. He was in there for a while and in the weight room doing stuff. I don’t have an answer to that, although it’s a great question, just because we still have today, we still have tomorrow.
“I think with any injury, you know, you want to see how it responds each day. To my knowledge, no swelling, which is a great thing. He becomes a little bit more active in every little thing that we’re doing now, so he’s 100 percent back in the fold practice-wise and I’m sure that Matt and the doctor, they’ll probably talk to me Saturday if there is a restriction. I have not talked to Matt yet, just because I knew we still have two days of prep work.”
One of two returning players, guard Devo Davis, missed the Troy game after not playing in the second half against San Diego State. Musselman is pleased to have Davis back for Saturday’s game and going forward.
“We’re looking forward to having a full roster,” Musselman said. “And I think these couple of days are going to be really good for Nick. They’ll be good for Devo to get back in the fold as well. I thought that our energy level yesterday, the pre-practice energy right now is good. We have two games on this home-stand that we need to get ready to play, and play at a high level.”
Musselman talked about how Davis has responded to being back.
“Yeah, I think everybody was was excited to have him back,” Musselman said. “I know, everybody really supported him while he was away. And I mean, his infectious energy in practice yesterday was great. And, you know, I think everybody’s happy that he’s back and ready to play.”
The other returning player is Kamani Johnson, who was the hero against San Diego State. Oddly enough, Johnson made his biggest impact in the second half of the overtime win over the Aztecs when Davis was out. Musselman talked about how Johnson has reacted to his role with this team.
“Well first of all, he had a huge day last night,” Musselman said. “The graduation is something that was really important to Kamani and to his family. Proud of him for that. I think anybody has to admire a player that comes to work, tries to get better everyday, has a role that maybe he would want a larger role and then is able to produce when his number’s called. That takes great inner belief in yourself and it takes consistency on the practice floor to make sure you’re ready when your number is called as well.”
After hardly playing the first five games, Johnson has had a huge role the past two games. He talked about how it has been this season with his role changing from time to time.
“Anybody who knows me, knows I’m a team-first guy,” Johnson said. “I’m super engaged in the game, no matter if I’m playing or not. I’m up on the bench all the time and cheering and leading and helping in any way I can. Playing and showing what I can do out there has been pretty good for me.
“You’ve just got to stay in the moment, stay locked in. I think everybody on this team is going to have big games and big moments. We’re all going to need everybody throughout the year. Being here for two-and-a-half years, I’ve seen how long a season is and how the roles switch and the opportunities switch and all that. So I think that’s just something that you’ve got to stick with it.”
Johnson saw extensive duty against Troy. Though he didn’t start he played 32 minutes.
“It was good,” Johnson said. “The next day when I woke up my body was hurting. But I got with Matt and got some treatment, so I’m pretty good. I’ve been doing extra conditioning with Dave Rich to keep conditioning up, and I’ll probably do some more conditioning now.”
Saturday’s game will tip at 3 p.m. and be televised on the SEC Network.