By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — There may not be another month during the course of the season that affords the 10th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks’ six freshmen as much limelight collectively, both on and off the court, as October did.
From national preseason awards and watch lists, an ESPN Sportscenter Top 10 play inclusion, and on-court production as exhibition play nears a close, the talented group of Nick Smith, Jr., Anthony Black, Jordan Walsh, Barry Dunning, Jr., Joseph Pinion, and Derrian Ford proved effective while collaborating to put their stamps on the preseason in positive ways.
Smith (6-5 guard, Jacksonville); Black (6-7 guard, Duncanville, Texas); and Walsh (6-7 combo forward, DeSoto, Texas) — the trio of national top 15 / 5-star prospects as high school seniors a season ago who each figures to crack Head Hog Eric Musselman’s top 7-8 rotation during the regular season — racked up individual recognition spanning the past week.
Smith was named to the 20-player Jerry West Award watch list, an honor awarded in the post-season to the nation’s top shooting guard, while Walsh was named to the 20-player Julius Erving Award watch list, an honor awarded in the post-season to the nation’s top small forward.
One of Black’s highlight reel dunks during Monday’s exhibition game against Division II Rogers State — a reach-back-and-smash off a lob from Smith — earned him the No. 8-ranked best play from the day in sports on ESPN’s Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays.
“I think the biggest thing with Anthony is just that he’s going to keep getting better,” Musselman said Monday following his team’s 83-49 win over Rogers State, during which Black contributed 6 points, a game-high 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block in a starting role. “I mean, he’s just scratching the surface. So because of his ceiling, I mean, he’s a really, really special player. Just because of the size and length. I mean, the only guy that we’ve had that’s- and they’re different players, but Cody Martin had that, you know 6-foot-7 point guard. You just don’t get point guards, you know that tall and that athletic.”
Smith — recently named preseason National Freshman of the Year and second team All American by CBS Sports — followed up his 23-point, 3-assist effort in the Red/White intrasquad scrimmage last week with 9 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists in only 20 minutes in a starting role against Rogers State. He scored the first 7 points of the game against RSU to stake the Hogs to an early lead they’d never relinquish.
“It was good for us early,” Black said of Smith’s quick scoring strikes against the Hillcats. “He came out the gate electric. Getting to the free throw line. Shooting good shots. He didn’t hit all of them but he was shooting good shots and keeping the flow going good. We need him to be aggressive like that every game, so we really needed that early on. It got us going.”
Walsh put together a solid outing in a starting role against Rogers State as he finished with 8 points (3-of-6 field goals, inlcuding 1-of-3 from 3), a game-high-matching 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 1 turnover, and a game-best boxscore plus-23 in 23 minutes.
Smith and Black have looked relatively comfortable playing together in the backcourt with the strengths of each player serving as a complement to the other, while Walsh’s activity around the basket at both ends of the floor has been valuable.
With an unprecedented road exhibition game against No. 12 Texas on Saturday, that threesome of Smith, Black, and Walsh will face their biggest challenges to date as college players.
“It’s going to be a pretty good game,” Black predicted. “It’s their first game in that new arena (the Moody Center in Austin, Texas), so I know it’s probably going to be packed. It’s going to be our first big test really on the road.”
And while the path for that trio to continue to produce and make an on-court impact moving forward is all but a certainty, the playing time and roles for Dunning (6-6 small forward, Mobile, Ala.), Pinion (6-5 wing, Russelville), and Ford (6-3 guard, Magnolia) — all national Top 100-ranked players as high school seniors a year ago — are less certain.
Pinion did more than anyone in the first two October dress rehearsals to show he could be an X-factor in solving the team’s ongoing three-point shooting woes. As one of only two Razorbacks to score in double figures in each of the Red/White and Rogers State games (sophomore forward Trevon Brazile was the other), Pinion averaged 13.5 points and shot a combined 6-of-11 from distance for 54.5% while the rest of the team collectively shot just south of 25% from behind the arc. Defensively, Pinion was solid as well as he walled off drives and stayed attached to his man.
“I thought Joseph played really well in the Red-White Game,” Musselman said. “I thought that he played really, really well tonight. You know, we were searching for that last year, a guy that could make a shot when we struggled. Mid-point of the year, we threw different guys in the starting lineup. I think with Joseph, his biggest thing is getting loose balls and defending. No. 0 hurt us at times and I thought he did as good a job tonight defensively as anyone we had on No. 0.
“He spaced it out. We ran plays for him. We probably ran more plays for Joseph tonight than we did anybody that checked into the game, including our starters. We ran him off red screens at least six times, maybe seven, so we called plays for him, which is a good things. I think if people try to zone us and we’re not making shots, I think tonight, he played his minutes, which is all you can ask.”
Dunning was efficient and productive during Arkansas’ 4-win exhibition tour through Europe in August, and though that production dipped a bit during the first two tune-ups in October he nonetheless remained efficient as he combined for 10 points (4-of-7 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws), 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks in a collective 40 minutes spanning both games.
Ford used his physical strength and effective bully-ball instincts to combine for 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists in a collective 36 minutes.
With the six freshmen making up the majority of Arkansas’ 11 newcomers, inconsistent practice and game performances have forced Musselman to make adjustments relative to his own ability to be patient.
“Yeah, I think we got to play up to our talent level,” he said. “I don’t think we do every day in practice, but I don’t think every team in the country does either. I think there’s very few that do. We’ve had some phenomenal practices, and then we’ve had some practices where I’ve been really frustrated. But again, I think, as Coach (Keith) Smart says, it’s the youngest team you’ve ever coached in your life. So deal with it, kinda. And he’s right.”