FAYETTEVILLE – Outside of his increasingly healthy return following his surgery requiring ankle injury at the outset of Arkansas’ 2-4 SEC start, forward Justin Smith was asked the biggest difference in that shaky start and the Razorbacks’ 11-0 SEC finish.
Arkansas takes a No. 8 national ranking, 21-5 overall record and SEC second place 13-4 record into its bye to Friday’s SEC Tournament quarterfinals game at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. against Thursday’s winner between Missouri and Georgia.
“I think we’ve really bought in at the defensive end,” Smith, the 6-7 graduate transfer via Indiana University, said. “We kind of made some switches on defense. But it takes some buy-in as well. We really have gotten stops when we needed it most. Defense wins championships and defense wins games. Hopefully we can carry that defensive momentum going forward.”
Smith’s impact on the turnaround got ignored by coaches and media voting on this week’s released All-SEC teams but not by the Razorbacks.
“”Justin’s impact on the team goes without saying given our record with and without him,” Moses Moody, Arkansas All-SEC first-team freshman guard and AP SEC Newcomer of the Year, said. “When he came back after that Alabama game, we haven’t lost an SEC game since. That says a lot in itself. He’s a prime contributor on this team. What he gives us each and every day goes without saying. You guys can see it. I don’t know what all goes into the decision-making (All-SEC voting) process behind closed doors, but I feel like he definitely could have been there and should have been there.”
But the defensive impact indeed extends beyond Smith.
The increased time of early season end of the bench freshman to starting guard Davonte “Devo” Davis impacted heavily, too.
“”Same with Devo,” Moody said, mystified that Jacksonville’s Davis was omitted from the SEC Coaches All-SEC Freshman team. “Just the kid that he is, I know something like this with him not making a team, or whatever, he’s not going to take that and put his tail between his legs. He’s going to put that as a chip on his shoulder. I mean, I wouldn’t want to line up against him after he’s been snubbed off a list like that because I know he’s going to put in the extra work and come back ready to show you why he should have been there.”
Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman pinpointed Devo’s defensive impact.
“Our defensive mobility laterally is really improved with Devo Davis,” Musselman said. “His lateral foot-speed, his lateral quickness and his ability to get loose balls and rebound for his area has really helped us.”
Unless you’re ready for an earful, don’t get him started on Justin Smith’s omission from the various All-SEC teams, especially the Coaches All-Defensive teams.
“Justin Smith has been as important to our team as any player is to any team,” Musselman said.
And the best at undistracted playing through lack of outside recognition.
“I think Justin is so mature,” Musselman said. “Just knowing him as well as I do, I don’t think it affects him at all, to be honest.”