LAS VEGAS — Nick Smith is due for a breakout game.
University of Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman and Smith’s teammates are hopeful it will happen tonight when the Razorbacks (22-13) play Connecticut (27-8) in the NCAA Tournament West Region semifinals at 6:15 tonight in T-Mobile Arena.
Smith, a 6-5 freshman guard from Jacksonville, is projected as an NBA Draft lottery pick, but he’s been struggling on offense in recent games.
Since the second half of Texas A&M’s 67-61 victory over Arkansas in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, Smith is 3 of 24 from the field. He shot 1 of 10 in the second half against the Aggies and was 2 of 10 against Illinois and 0 of 4 against Kansas in the Razorbacks’ first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games in Des Moines, Iowa.
“The tension is just building up in Nick to be able to come out and really destroy somebody,” Arkansas freshman forward Jordan Walsh said. “So I feel like it’s coming. If not this game then maybe the next game. But it’s coming for sure.”
Smith, averaging 12.6 points and 26.0 minutes in 16 games, is on his second comeback of the season. He missed 19 games total because of right knee management.
After missing the first six games, Smith returned for a five-game stretch that included scoring 21 points against Oklahoma. Then he missed 13 games before coming back again.
In SEC play Smith scored 26 points against Georgia, 25 against Kentucky and 24 at Alabama. He hit a game-winning jumper with 20 seconds left in Arkansas’ 76-73 victory over Auburn in the SEC Tournament.
Smith then shot 5 of 10 in the first half against Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament before his struggles began in the second half.
“Nick’s one of the most talented players in the country,” Musselman said. “And he’s had some big games for us.
“He’s been in a tough situation, in and out of the lineup with injuries. It’s not easy for any player to do, let alone when a team’s on a tournament run.
“But, yeah, we’d certainly love Nick to have a big game.”
Smith said his knee feels good and he’s in a good place mentally as well.
“We got the win, so I’m not really trippin’ on my stats or anybody else’s stats,” Smith said of the Illinois and Kansas games. “We had key players that stepped up for us and got us where we needed to be. I’m just happy we got the win.”
Smith said he won’t press or force shots early against Connecticut.
“I just need to be patient with myself in letting the game develop into one of the games I want to have,” he said.“My confidence and attitude stays the same always.
“I’m just going to out there and play my game and try to be comfortable from the tip.”
Arkansas junior guard Ricky Council said he pulled Smith aside after a recent film session for a talk.
“Like I told him, he looks comfortable out there,” Council said.
“His shot’s just not falling. It’s happened to every single one of us on this team. He’s human. It’s going to happen.
“As long as we keep winning, he has more opportunities to prove himself and more opportunities for his shot to fall. So I’m excited to see what happens [tonight].”
Connecticut Coach Dan Hurley had high praise for Smith.
“He’s really an electrifying player to watch, just in terms of his abilities with the ball, just how twitchy he is with the ball,” Hurley sid. “Obviously his size, his length. I saw him a bunch in high school so we know what he’s capable in terms of the 3-point shooting.
”We’re obviously preparing for him like we’ve got to guard one of the best scoring guards in the country.”
Arkansas senior forward Kamani Johnson was asked about how valuable it’s been to have Smith back in the lineup.
“It’s always good when you can have a top-10 draft pick come back and be on your team,” Johnson said. “He’s been dealing with injuries, but we know who he is as a player. He knows who he is as a player.
“We don’t have to give him too much encouragement. He’s a dog, we know he’s a dog, and we know what he can do.
“We’re excited to have him back. It’s a new city. Close a chapter on the old one. I can’t wait to see what he does when he performs [tonight].”
Razorbacks junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis also is from Jacksonville and said he and Smith grew up playing together at the Boys & Girls Club.
“For him to come back [from his knee issue], that’s amazing, and he’s a young man that a lot of people can’t faze,” Davis said. “It’s tough to be in his world today and to be able to take on the things he’s taking on.
“I’m glad he’s able to take on things the way he is, and I appreciate that and I know other guys do as well.”
When media members entered the Arkansas locker room in Wells Fargo Arena after the Razorbacks beat No. 1 seed Kansas, Smith was sobbing.
“For him to be able to cry in that locker room, feel those emotions — even after not having the best game, and being there for us and we being there for him — being there for each other, it’s just amazing,” Davis said. “He knows I love him. And he’ll be fine.
“It’s a new city. We’re in Vegas. Nick told me earlier he felt good. We’re ready.”
Musselman said Smith has been “great in practice” this week.
“He was bouncing around the last two days,” Musselman said. “I think he’s excited to get another opportunity to play, just as we all are.”
Council said the Razorbacks remain confident in Smith’s ability to impact a game.
“I think [tonight] will be a big-time game for him,” Council said. “I hope so. It would just make things easier for the rest of the team.”
Despite twice missing games for extended periods, Smith said he feels fortunate to play for the Razorbacks.
“It’s been a blessing for sure,” he said. “Learning new things in life that you go through, adversity.
“God puts you in positions for reasons, and I feel He put me in this position to learn and grow from this experience.”
Smith said he never considered focusing on the NBA Draft and not coming back to the Razorbacks this season.
“I wanted to do what I had in store before I even came here,” Smith said. “That’s who I am. I just like to play basketball.”
Council said the Razorbacks are well aware of many social media posts earlier this season questioning whether Smith would play for Arkansas again after he had to miss games for a second time.
“I know some of the types of things people have been saying about him, saying that he should have never come back or he was faking an injury or those types of things,” Council said. “I know it’s probably gotten to him.
“But at the end of the day, he’s back now. We’ve embraced it, so everybody else should, too.
“Just let the kid hoop.”