FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas attention now focuses on the Razorbacks’ Saturday’s 6:25 p.m. TBS televised Sweet Sixteen game in Indianapolis vs. Oral Roberts University.
But with media’s first opportunity Tuesday to interview Jaylin Williams since Arkansas started its NCAA Tournament South Regional run, the zoom press conference immediately zoomed on his reaction to his surprise start in last Sunday’s 68-66 second-round victory over Texas Tech in Indianapolis.
The 6-10, 245 freshman backup center from Fort Smith Northside had started but three times and missed Arkansas’ last four games in covid protocol prior to the NCAA Tournament and played just 5:30 off the bench entirely first half minutes in Arkansas’ South Regional first-round victory over Colgate.
Off that mostly inactivity how did he react to Coach Eric Musselman starting him against Big 12 power Texas Tech?
“I really didn’t have a reaction,” Williams said Tuesday. “Of course, I was happy to be in the starting five. But whether I’m able to contribute off the bench or in the starting five, I’m going to do whatever I’ve got to do.”
Apparently his coach reacted more dramatically to starting the freshman than the freshman.
“I told my wife,” Musselman relayed during Sunday’s postgame press conference. “Hey, we’re going to get second-guessed if we don’t win this game, because he really hasn’t started all year. And he missed a lot of time. But I think this is the best decision for us, and I can’t let anything influence a decision we make, other than, how do we win this game.”
Texas Tech presented a physically imposing team, and Williams is the most physical among Arkansas centers Connor Vanover and Ethan Henderson or going small ball and playing 6-7 starting forward Justin Smith at center which Musselman did for the bulk of the 85-68 victory over Colgate.
“We went to practice yesterday and I said, ‘First group up,’ and as they started to walk out there, I said, ‘Jaylin, you’re stepping in at center for this game,” Musselman said. “I told the staff I probably should have had a meeting with a couple guys, and even alerted Jaylin, but I didn’t. But I think it was the right decision for us from a rebounding standpoint against Texas Tech.”
Williams’ game leading 10 rebounds and team-leading four assists plus taking key charges vouch it was.
Few have scored just one point yet more influenced an Arkansas NCAA Tournament game than Williams did.
“I felt like I was back,” Williams said Tuesday. “I was able to get rebounds, get down there and take some charges like everybody knows I’m going to do. I was passing the ball really well the other night. Really, I felt like I was back comfortable being on the court.
Smith, 20 points and six boards, sure played comfortably with him assisted by Williams assists on some backdoor baskets.
“Just me being out there with him makes my life easier and everybody else’s life easier,” Smith said. “So just keep him out of foul trouble and we’re going to be very good.”
ORU’s Golden Eagles are bound to see more of Williams Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis than they did Dec. 20 when the Razorbacks rallied from a 40-30 halftime deficit to beat ORU, 87-76 at Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Williams was never budged off the bench while now established freshman guard Davonte “Devo” Davis of Jacksonville played just 8:39 off the bench minutes against ORU.
Arkansas sixth-man guard JD Notae, the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year, during Tuesday’s press conference described Davis’ demonic defensive presence in the backcourt.
“He’s just in your personal space the whole game,” Notae said. “He’s just there. He just aggravates the whole game and is just frustrating for other players.”
Though an uncustomary 0 for 6 on treys, Notae, 7 for 8 on free throws, scored 15 points against ORU.
What does he recall of the Golden Eagles?
“I remember that everybody on their team was a shooter,” Notae said. “And they was beating us the majority of the whole game and we just made a late spark run late and beat them.” Their two-man game is phenomenal. (Max) Abmas and (Kevin) Obanor. They’re both shooting the ball very well. They’re both averaging like 28-plus in this tournament throughout the two games. So it’s going to be a tough task to stop them two but we’re up for it.”
In Coach Paul Mills’ 15th-seeded Golden Eagles’ first-round upset of second seed Ohio State, Obanor scored 30 while Abmas scored 29.
In ORU’s second round upset of seventh-seeded Florida, Obanor scored 28 while Abmas scored 26.