With just under six minutes to play, Arkansas basketball was in a battle with No. 25 Texas A&M on Wednesday. Makhi Mitchell made a pair of free throws to put the Razorbacks up two with 5:54 remaining.
Arkansas didn’t score again until there were 12 seconds to play. The Razorbacks ended the game with three points in roughly the final six minutes, and they lost 62-56. Sitting on the bench watching it happen was freshman guard Nick Smith Jr.
Smith was imagined to be the miracle cure for Arkansas’ offensive woes this season. He missed 13 games for “right knee management” before returning in the Razorbacks’ last game against Mississippi State. In that game, he played 19 minutes with five points and an assist. It was a quiet return, but it was his first game in months. In his second game back on Wednesday, Smith played four minutes, all of them in the first half.
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With the offense sputtering down the stretch, Arkansas needed some kind of spark. Could Smith have been it? Coach Eric Musselman didn’t think so. When asked why Smith didn’t play in the second half, all Musselman said was: “We’re just trying to win a game and keep our season alive.”
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that a player who went eight weeks without seeing the court or even practicing with his team might not be able to fix an offensive meltdown in his second game back. But when that player is quite literally at the top of his class, it’s also hard to imagine he could make a bad situation any worse.
Arkansas was certainly in a bad spot. The Razorbacks shot 36% in the second half against the Aggies, including 1-of-10 from beyond the 3-point arc. That came after a 52% first-half field goal percentage. But given what Smith has shown in the small sample size of games he’s played in an Arkansas uniform, there’s no guarantee his presence would have saved the game.
His lone field goal attempt Wednesday was a blocked layup, and he had two turnovers in his four minutes. In his prior six appearances, Smith shot an average of 37%, the lowest among Razorbacks who have played at least 100 minutes this season.
We’ll never know if Smith might’ve saved the game against Texas A&M. Given the way Arkansas’ offense has collapsed in close games and the brief but lackluster showing from Smith in the first half, it’s hard to believe he could’ve been the hero. But the question of whether he can save Arkansas’ season is still on the minds of many.
Smith was the No. 1 player in the class of 2022 for a reason. The way this season has gone, however, expecting him to carry the Razorbacks (17-9, 6-7 SEC) to a deep tournament run starting in its final seven regular-season games isn’t a reasonable ask. As the season dwindles, it looks less and less likely that Smith can be the prince who was promised.
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]
This article originally appeared on Fort Smith Times Record: Where was Nick Smith Jr. in Arkansas basketball’s loss to Texas A&M?