By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Normally there’d be no need to engage in MVP chatter for player performances spanning a one-week / two-game stretch in mid-December non-conference play, but this year relative to last season and other factors for the Arkansas Razorbacks it seems fitting, and there’s no better candidate to hang that MVP moniker on than freshman Jordan Walsh.
The contibutions from Walsh (6-7 combo forward, native of DeSoto, Texas) were both tangible and intangible while serving as the catalyst for a 2-0 winning spree from Dec. 10-17 against Oklahoma and mid-major Bradley — both at neutral sites on consecutive Saturdays — as Arkansas found mid-December vindication after failing miserably this time last year while going 0-2 against Oklahoma and mid-major Hofstra.
While Walsh’s combined 30 points in the two wins served as numeric symmetry to the collective losing margin a season ago (30 points) and the collective winning margin last week (29 points), it also served notice to the SEC that Walsh’s 5-star promise and sudden significant in-game impact have arrived just in time for the 18-game league grind that begins in just 10 days.
For a program that has hit significant snags transitioning from mid-December to the start of SEC play in early January in more than just last season, Walsh helped signal that it won’t go down like that in December of the 2022-23 campaign.
His emergence began against Oklahoma in Tulsa on Dec. 10 when Walsh put together a two-way (offense and defense) gem of a performance, registering 12 points (5-of-9 field goals, including 2-of-5 from 3) for his first double-digit scoring effort in seven games to go with 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 assist, and 1 block in 31 minutes. His length (7-3 wingspan), athleticism, and blue-collar determination were visible at both ends of the floor as he engineered multiple single-play / hustle-play wins that fueled successful runs for the Hogs. His three-point shooting was not only efficient at 40%, but also timely as his final make from distance helped Arkansas stave off a late Oklahoma run in an 88-78 revenge-win (the Sooners won 88-66 a year earlier).
Fast-forward a week later to Dec. 17, and Walsh raised the bar on what he would bring to the table against a worthy mid-major opponent in the Bradley Braves at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock. Walsh scored 4 quick points to help the Hogs to a 6-2 lead, and after Bradley eased ahead 7-6 it was Walsh’s dunks on back-to-back posssessions after steals that highlighted an 11-0 run that put the Razorbacks up 17-7 as the team never looked back on its way to a 76-57 win to avenge last season’s 89-81 loss to mid-major Hofstra at the same venue.
Walsh finished with a career- and game-high 18 points on a perfect shooting night from the field (7-of-7 field goals, including 1-of-1 from 3, and 3-of-4 free throws) to go with 4 steals, 3 rebounds, and 1 assist in 28 minutes.
Once again, he was a two-way force every minute he was on the court. And when he left the court at various junctures of the Bradley game, the 16,675 central Arkansas fans in attendance rewarded Walsh with rousing ovations.
“Jordan Walsh just keeps getting better,” Head Hog Eric Musselman said following the Bradley win. “You can see his confidence continue to grow each game. The last two games the energy that he’s played with has been really, really on another level.”
Battling in traffic for rebounds, willing his way to finishing tough buckets, and winning 50/50-ball plays while mixing in shooting confidence from distance and establishing transition air superiority, Walsh’s two-game perfomances were exactly what the Hoop Hogs needed to reverse their fortunes in similar game settings and opponents from a season ago.
“I feel like the whole thing was possible just because me and (Arkansas assistant) Coach (Keith) Smart would watch film with each other, we’d study the other team and we’d know what their weaknesses are on defense and also on offense,” Walsh answered when asked about his production and impact surge. “It was all just a part of his game plan, for real. It (a strong game first against Oklahoma) gave me a lot of confidence. And also talking with Muss. Muss told me before the Oklahoma game, ‘Just play with more confidence.’ As soon as he told me that, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m fixing to turn up.’ I’m going to listen to him and play with more confidence. If I’m more confident then it’ll open up my game a little bit more for me and my teammates.”
Was Walsh not the most valuable player in these last two games, if you believe one performer’s value can rise above all? But the stakes were even higher given the added pressure for Musselman and his players to fill the void left by the season-ending knee injury suffered by star stretch-4 forward Trevon Brazile in a home win over North Carolina-Greensboro on Dec. 6.
Brazile headlined a deep frontline, but at 6-10 with a 7-4 wingspan and elite athleticism he brought unique traits to the floor that none of the more traditional bigs on the team could. Not even collectively.
Except for Walsh, a wing/forward combo (or 3/4-combo forward) whose elite length and bounce, ability to stretch the floor as a shooter, and grit to battle inside and around the basket offered a package that more closely resembled some of what made Brazile a special big.
Yet, most of those attributes had not quite surfaced for Walsh, at least not consistently, through the team’s first nine games. Even against Greensboro when Brazile went down late in the first half, Walsh was not part of the top-rotation equation that night as he played only 8 minutes in the team’s grinding 65-58 come-from-behind win.
And then, as though he flipped a switch, Walsh was top-shelf quality as explained above in the last two runaway wins against Oklahoma and Bradley.
Understand, it’s not as much about Walsh doing more than anybody else to fill the production void left by Brazile’s departure — although he did that too — but it’s more about Walsh finding the best of himself that made him a top 20 national recruit and a projected one-and-done prospect to begin with, before he ever stepped foot on campus. It’s about him seeing the game slow down, playing within the strengths of his game, striking a balance to find that controlled and productive chaotic defender that Musselman once lovingly described as “violent”, and understanding how much power he has as an intregal part in a team concept at the highest level of college basketball.
Statistics — 7.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 23.4 minutes, 51.6% field goals, 34.8% three-point field goals, and 71.4% free throws for the 10-1 Hogs — paint a picture of a solid performer roughly one-third of the way through the regular season. But the two most-recent eye tests tell you that Walsh is starting to put things together in ways that even the lofty stats from these last two wins simply can’t do justice in explaining.
So if you’re looking for an MVP as Arkansas navigated a potentially rough 2-game stretch in mid-December while figuring out how to move on without a star player just in time for the grind of SEC action, look no further than Jordan Walsh. He’s your man.