FAYETTEVILLE — For Justin Smith to get back to Indiana, first he had to leave Indiana.
Smith, a 6-7 senior graduate transfer forward, is a big reason the University of Arkansas is playing Colgate today in Indianapolis in a first-round NCAA Tournament game.
“Justin makes us a completely different basketball team,” Razorbacks coach Eric Musselman said. “He has been as important to our team as any player is to any team in the country.”
The previous three seasons Smith played at Indiana University, which finished 12-15 this season and fired Archie Miller as coach.
Miller wasn’t able to lead the Hoosiers to an NCAA Tournament appearance in four seasons and was 68-57 as their coach.
It’s possible Indiana might have made it to the NCAA Tournament last season when the Hoosiers were 20-12 after beating Nebraska in their Big Ten Tournament opener. But the remaining conference tournaments and NCAA Tournament were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Smith started 73 of 98 games for the Hoosiers, including all 35 last season, but after graduating with a business degree in three years, he decided to find a new basketball program.
“I enjoyed my three years at Indiana and I made a lot of good memories,” Smith said before this season. “But it was time for me to move on.”
Today Smith finally will play in his first NCAA Tournament game. It will be in the 113th game of his college career.
“It means a lot,” Smith said. “Spending my first three years of college in this state, you get to know how big basketball is, especially college basketball.
“It’s a big deal and I’m excited to be back and to play here again. It’s familiar surroundings, and I just can’t wait to play.”
Musselman said he appreciated the belief Smith, who is from Buffalo Grove, Ill., had in Arkansas to join the Razorbacks.
“He took a leap of faith to come here because he was so sought after by different teams across the country,” Musselman said. “His mom, Lucy, is really happy. Edward, his dad, is real happy with the way the whole season has gone. We’re happy for him.
“For him to be able to come back to the state of Indiana and play in the NCAA Tournament is a really neat story.”
The Razorbacks (22-6) will face Colgate (14-1) at 11:45 a.m. in Bankers Life Fieldhouse — the same building in which Smith played his final game for Indiana in the 2020 Big Ten Tournament.
“When I decided to come to Arkansas, I wanted to make sure that we were going to have a chance to win — to do a lot of big things — and we’ve had that so far,” Smith said.
Arkansas, ranked No. 10 in The Associated Press poll for the first time since 1995, goes into the NCAA Tournament after losing to LSU 78-71 in the SEC Tournament semifinals last Saturday.
“Obviously the conference tournament didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to,” Smith said. “But we’ve still got a big opportunity in the NCAA Tournament.
“Winning was always a big, important factor for me and I’m glad that it came to fruition here at Arkansas.”
Arkansas is 21-3 with Smith in the lineup and was 1-3 without when he missed four games in January after undergoing surgery on his right ankle.
The Razorbacks lost 90-59 at Alabama — which won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles and is a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament — on Jan. 16 in Smith’s first game after his surgery.
Smith had been projected to miss three to six weeks, but he returned to the starting lineup against the Crimson Tide in two weeks. He clearly was rusty and lacked conditioning after being unable to practice and finished with five points in 18 minutes.
“Words don’t describe the respect we have for Justin,” Musselman said. “Obviously, he came back against Alabama and was hobbling and was not fully healthy, but he did it for the betterment of the team.”
Since the loss at Alabama, Smith has helped Arkansas go 12-2, including an 81-77 loss at Oklahoma State along with the SEC Tournament loss to LSU.
“Justin is a leader,” Razorbacks junior guard JD Notae said. “He keeps us composed, keeps us level-headed.”
Smith, who averaged 10.4 points and 5.2 rebounds last season, is averaging 13.0 and 6.9 this season and shooting 54.1% (131 of 242) from the field. Of his 165 rebounds, 73 have been on the offensive end.
“I think his toughness is extraordinary,” Colgate coach Matt Langel said. “It shows in his play. I think he’s tenacious and has got what we call a ‘has to’ about him.
“Like, everybody wants to, but he ‘has to.’ Whether that’s getting a rebound or playing defense or getting penetration into the paint for a basket, he’s got a ‘has to’ that’s really terrific.”
Over the last six games Smith is averaging 16.6 points and 7.6 rebounds.
“It’s interesting that you can see even toward the tail end of his senior year how he’s improving offensively, and he’s being more aggressive offensively,” Musselman said. “So it’s a great lesson for all players.”
Musselman said Smith’s ability to guard different positions also has been a huge plus.
“I think he’s in the top three in the country versatility-wise guarding fours, fives, and threes,” Musselman said. “I think he’s an NBA defender. I don’t think there’s any question in my mind.”
Musselman should know what it takes to be an NBA defender considering he previously was the head coach for Golden State and Sacramento.
“I appreciate it,” Smith said when told of Musselman’s comments. “That’s high praise coming from him.
“Look, I hang my hat on the defensive end. I take pride in defense, and really whatever I can do to help my team win that’s translating this year. I’m really proud of it.”
Senior guard Jalen Tate is the only Razorback to play in the NCAA Tournament — in 2019 when he was at Northern Kentucky. He’s glad Smith is getting his chance to play in the NCAA Tournament now.
“I’m super happy for Justin,” Tate said. “He deserves it. Just being around him this one year, I know he’s put in countless hours and tons of work to get to this point.
“So for him to have that finally pay off in his final year, I’m just happy to be part of it. Happy to see him happy that he’s finally here.”