El Dorado News-Times
Arkansas, Florida to meet in SEC clash
FAYETTEVILLE — Two basketball teams in flux meet in Walton Arena today when the University of Arkansas takes on Florida.
The Razorbacks (179, 6-7 SEC) are trying to figure out how best to work freshman guard Nick Smith back into the playing rotation and the Gators (14-12, 7-6) are trying to figure out how to win without senior center Colin Castleton.
Smith, a 6-5 preseason first team All-SEC pick and projected NBA Draft lottery choice, has played a combined 21 minutes off the bench the previous two games after missing 13 consecutive for what Arkansas has termed “management” of an issue with his right knee.
Castleton, a 6-11 senior living up to preseason expectations of being an All-SEC player, suffered a fracture in his right hand early in the second half of Florida’s 69-54 victory at home over Ole Miss on Wednesday night and could be out the rest of the season. He had 29 points against Arkansas last season when the Razorbacks beat the Gators 82-74 in Gainesville, Fla.
The Razorbacks also lost their top big man, 6-10 sophomore Trevon Brazile, to a season-ending knee injury in the ninth game against North Carolina-Greensboro.
“They’ve had some injuries,” Florida Coach Todd Golden said. “They’ve had some problems with consistency in their rotations and lineups.
“It’s a challenge when you’re losing guys and adding guys back in to get to that comfort level.”
Castleton averaged 16.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.0 blocked shots and 2.7 assists while starting all 26 games.
“Colin was a huge part of our team on both sides of the ball,” Golden said. “It’s harder changing a whole lot at this time of the year, but we’re going to have to do things a little differently, trying to capitalize on the personnel that are going to be playing more.
“Obviously, it’s a difficult thing to have to overcome this point in the season, but at the same time it’s an opportunity for a lot of guys to step
up — guys who haven’t had the same opportunity earlier in the year. We’re going to see what they’ve got.”
Smith is on his second comeback this season after he missed the first six games with the same knee management issue, then played in five before being sidelined again.
After being limited to six minutes and going scoreless in his college debut against Troy, Smith flashed his potential by averaging 19.7 points the next three games against San Jose State, UNC-Greensboro and Oklahoma.
In Smith’s fourth start against Bradley on Dec. 17, he took himself out with 17:05 left.
He didn’t play again until last Saturday when Mississippi State beat Arkansas 70-64 in Walton Arena.
Smith played 17 minutes off the bench against the Bulldogs and had 5 points on 2-of-7 shooting with 1 rebound and 1 assist.
In Texas A&M’s 62-55 victory over the Razorbacks on Wednesday night in College Station, Texas, Smith played 4 minutes off the bench — all in the first half — and went scoreless going 0 of 1 from the field with 2 turnovers in his first road game.
“We’re just trying to win a game and keep our season alive,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said when asked why Smith didn’t play in the second half. “We’re just going to keep trying to work everybody in.”
With Florida starting four guards and Arkansas being back at home, today might offer a better opportunity for Musselman to give Smith more playing time.
“[Smith has] got to get into the flow of things,” Arkansas junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis said Thursday when he spoke on “The Zone” radio show on KABZ-FM. “As a player, we all know he’s good. Can he help our team win? For sure. Will he help us? Yes, for sure.
“Why he’s not playing, he’s got to get his momentum and things like that, and once Coach sees that and the assistants start to see it, I’m sure he’ll play more.
“He’s one of the best players in the country [as] we’ve all seen before. Coming up to Arkansas and putting his pride to the side and getting back on the court — even though he didn’t have to — I think that shows a lot.”
Davis, like Smith, is from Jacksonville. “Knowing Nick, I know he’s going to be ready to play, whether he plays 40 minutes or plays five,” Davis said. “He’s going to work hard regardless.
“If he gets in, he gets in. If he don’t, he don’t. He’s going to continue to work hard.”
Arkansas freshman point guard Anthony Black, speaking Friday on the “Morning Mayhem” radio show on KABZ-FM, was asked about Smith playing four minutes at Texas A&M and the process for getting him more involved in games.
“With Coach, he’s always trying to figure out a way to win,” Black said.
“As players, we have to trust him. So we’re trusting in whatever he says.
“Nick is doing a good job of being a good team player and understanding that he’s just now coming back. He’s handling it well. He’s just worried about winning, just like the rest of us.”
Florida 6-11 senior Jason Jitoboh is the probable starter at center for the Gators in Castleton’s absence. He had 4 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists in 17 minutes against Ole Miss.
“Jason’s a capable player in terms of getting catches in the low block and making moves around the rim,” Golden said. “I think he can keep us in our stuff on the perimeter as well.
“We’ll tweak some things and we’ll have to adjust some things in order for our guys to be successful, but we’re not going to reinvent the wheel in 48 hours. Our base is very solid.”
Other options inside for the Gators are 6-9 sophomore Alex Fudge and 6-10 freshman Aleks Szymczyk. Without Castleton, Florida will look for more scoring from its guards, including sophomores Will Richard (averaging 10.3 points) and Kowacie Reeves (8.7), seniors Kyle Lofton (8.9) and Myreon Jones (5.3) and freshman Riley Kugel (7.6).
If Smith can return to the form he showed earlier in the season when he had 16 points against San Jose State, 22 against UNC-Greensboro and 21 against Oklahoma, it will be a huge boost for Arkansas.
Davis said the Razorbacks don’t often scrimmage in practice, so Smith needs playing time in games.
“Has he had that spark yet? No,” Davis said speaking on “The Zone” radio show. “But will we see it? I’m sure we will.
“What game? I’m not sure. It could be Saturday or it could be the last game in the SEC Tournament. I know for sure it’s going to come.
“We’re just all waiting on it. He’s going to practice hard, he’s going to work hard, he’s going to do whatever it takes.
“Like everyone else has to do, wait on their time and see how God blesses him and hope it all works out for the best.”