Can Arkansas basketball sustain its newfound offensive success with Nick Smith Jr.?
FAYETTEVILLE — With its blowout 97-65 win over Georgia on Tuesday, Arkansas basketball has now won back-to-back games. In those two wins, the Razorbacks' offense has been vastly improved compared to the rest of conference play.
Arkansas got right in wins over Florida and Georgia. The only problem? They were wins over Florida and Georgia. Both are currently in the bottom half of the SEC and are at or below .500 in league play.
Now, Arkansas has a head full of steam going into a daunting three-game stretch to end the regular season. The Razorbacks travel to No. 2 Alabama on Saturday (1 p.m. CT, ESPN2), then visit No. 13 Tennessee before hosting Kentucky.
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So how much of that offensive success was because Arkansas was playing lesser teams? Will the Razorbacks' offensive transformation hold up against Alabama and beyond? These are the biggest questions coming out of the Georgia win and headed into the home stretch of the regular season.
The biggest key in Arkansas' offensive improvement is the return of Nick Smith Jr. Tuesday was his fourth game back since he missed 13 for "right knee management" and his second straight start for the Razorbacks.
Early on, it was clear Smith was adjusting to playing with a team with which he didn't practice for almost eight weeks. He scored five, none and 10 in his first three games and went a combined 1-for-8 from 3-point range.
On Tuesday, he exploded for 26 points and went 5-for-9 from beyond the arc.
It isn't just Smith's scoring that changes the offense. His presence and skills change the way Arkansas plays, and it makes the rest of the team better.
Coach Eric Musselman noted the impact Smith has on the offense's spacing. The Razorbacks had 26 assists against Georgia, their highest mark of the season, and five turnovers, their fewest this season.
Smith's perimeter shooting makes Arkansas better. The Razorbacks have struggled against zone defenses most of this season because of their inability to shoot 3-pointers consistently. Georgia went zone Tuesday, and Arkansas actually shot them out of it. As a team, Arkansas went 11-for-20 from beyond the arc.
Arkansas' games against Georgia and Florida were vital for the Razorbacks adjusting to playing with Smith. The training wheels are coming off Saturday, however. Is the offense truly transformed, or was it just playing poor defenses? That remains to be seen, but Arkansas can't afford to fall into its old bad habits with turnovers and lack of motion against a team ranked No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
"We put ourselves in a fairly good position based on how we played the last two games from a chemistry standpoint," Musselman said. "I think we're in a good spot, but we're playing two of the best teams in the nation in front of sold-out buildings the next two games."
Christina Long covers the Arkansas Razorbacks for the Southwest Times Record and USA Today Network. You can follow her on Twitter @christinalong00 or email her at [email protected]
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