Arkansas freshman Nick Smith Jr. missed the first six games of the season with a knee issue but will try for his third consecutive 20-point outing when the 10th-ranked Razorbacks take on Bradley on Saturday in North Little Rock, Ark.
After a five-minute debut against Troy on Nov. 28 and a 16-point game against San Jose State five days later, Smith broke out in the past two games with 22 points in a win over UNC Greensboro and 21 against Oklahoma.
The performance earned the consensus 5-star guard SEC co-Freshman of the Week honors.
Smith was 8 of 16 from the field and had only two turnovers against the Sooners on Saturday. In his three starts, he has averaged 19.7 points a game, helping the Razorbacks (9-1) stretch their winning steak to five games.
“I still feel like I have a ways to go,” Smith said in a mid-week Zoom session. “Obviously, when you see me on the court I’m not as explosive as of right now, but once the season continues to go on I feel like I can get back.”
Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said Smith is progressing exactly as the Hogs hoped he would.
“He’s fully engaged in practice and pre-practice and post-practice,” Musselman said. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable with each game, both scheme-wise and from an individual standpoint as well.”
Bradley (7-3) will present an interesting challenge for the Razorbacks, who have one more non-conference outing before Christmas — UNC Asheville next Wednesday — prior to beginning SEC play at LSU on Dec. 28.
Musselman has called the Braves one of the top defensive teams in the country. They hold opponents to an average of 59.2 points a game to rank No. 19 among Division i teams, and their opponents shoot only 39.1 percent from the field.
The Braves, who are riding a four-game winning streak, also expect to get a key player back in the lineup. Ja’Shon Henry has played only four games because of a mild concussion but was back at practice, according to the Peoria Journal-Star.
“Ja’Shon has been medically cleared to practice and cleared to play,” Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. “We’ll see how he responds through the rest of the week, day-by-day.”
Henry was a third-team all-Missouri Valley Conference preseason honoree.
“He’s excited, and he made a decision that he wants to come back and play,” Wardle said. “And we hope to have him available Saturday.”
The game in North Little Rock continues a tradition for the Razorbacks. They have played in the city 20 of the past 21 years and 19 in a row. They are 16-10 overall in the city but only 12-10 in the Simmons Bank Arena.
Smith played for North Little Rock High but did not play a game in the facility.
“It’s going to be a fun experience, just like every game,” he said. “I’m going to treat it as a regular game because with the history of Arkansas, they haven’t played very well in Little Rock. So my mindset of the game is to try to dominate and get the win.”
–Field Level Media