Without star freshman Nick Smith Jr., the No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks 10 showed off their depth with a pair of great performances from unlikely contributors in Wednesday’s 85-51 win against UNC Asheville at Bud Walton Arena.
Once again, Smith will miss an unknown amount of time as he deals with “right knee management.” The announcement that he would not play came minutes before Wednesday’s tip-off, and it is the second time this season that he has missed time with a right knee problem.
“He’s out indefinitely and that’s what he is,” head coach Eric Musselman said after the game. “So, there’s nothing else. He’s out indefinitely and will continue to rehab as best he can.”
In his absence, Arizona State transfer Jalen Graham and freshman guard Joseph Pinion shined during the Bulldogs’ destruction.
After allowing UNC Asheville to score first to finish a 2-0 game, the Hogs never trailed again the rest of the night. Arkansas’ biggest lead was 35 points, and the big lead, coupled with rookies getting into trouble early, allowed players like Graham and Pinion to show what they’ve got.
“This was a good overall performance from the team,” Musselman said on postgame radio. “Obviously we were able to deal with some foul problems in the first half with Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh committing two fouls and then it gave some other guys some opportunities and allowed us to see what this team could be like when the guys find themselves in trouble with a roster a little different from what was perhaps even the last game in North Little Rock”.
Graham first came on at 1:26 into halftime and just over three minutes later, he had six points and a steal. He finished the game with a career-high 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting.
“Jalen has a great shot on the break,” Musselman said in the postgame press conference. “He has a great spin move. He can feel the defender, go the other way. I thought offensively, I’d give him a 10 out of 10. We just need some rebounds from Jalen. Some physical rebounds in traffic are one of the le areas Jalen needs to continue to focus on.”
Graham also added three rebounds, two steals and a block in the contest. His spin move in the paint is elite and has earned him the nickname “Spin Cycle” from the team.
“At ASU, all my old teammates, they always looked at the rotation in practice, but it still worked,” Graham said. “I’ve been practicing that move since I got to college. I don’t know, it’s just that I’ve always done it for some reason, which is a little weird, but yeah.”
Along with Graham, Pinion posted career highs in minutes (18:40), points (10), and assists (3). The Morrilton freshman knocked down pocket threes off the bench to keep the Arkansas offense buzzing.
“When he comes into the game you can see teammates, the coaching staff, we feel that when he rolls he’s going to enter,” said Musselman. “When you’re a great shooter, that’s how everyone looks.”
One of Pinion’s three assists was an alley-oop to Graham.
Graham said he used to get up for dunks like that during his time with Arizona State, and he still has some rebounding now that he’s in Fayetteville.
“I don’t know if Joe heard me, but I was yelling, ‘Backboard,'” Graham said. “So I think he’s going to throw it off the backboard, and all of a sudden, I just see the ball in the air. And I was like, ‘Okay, I have to catch this.’ So I didn’t know I had him yet, but you know, he just came out of nowhere.”
Pinion joined the dunking party with a pair of slams late in the game to give him double-digit points.
“Oh, you know, I’ve seen Joe in practice,” Graham said. “We’re lobbing, you know. It’s just like the white man can’t jump, and he figured that out… I know he can jump.”
Even if the Hogs beat the Bulldogs on Wednesday, the level of competition will immediately rise next time. SEC play kicks off next Wednesday at LSU, and the Hogs might not be without Smith just yet, plus sophomore forward Trevon Brazile finished the year with a torn ACL.
Playing without those two players at times during the first 12 games allowed the team to showcase its depth.
“We’re just deep,” Graham said. “We’re a really good team. I haven’t been on a team like this in my four years of college basketball. Sometimes when people don’t get into the game, they’re really good, and it’s just like, people will always be ready.” in training – everyone is ready, everyone is competing in training – when we compete as hard as we do, especially the big boys, it just shows that everyone is ready to play. If people go down, someone will step up.”
The Hogs travel to Baton Rouge to face the LSU Tigers next Wednesday at 8:00 PM CT. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.