Musselman: 'We don't have a lot of time to figure this whole thing out'
Excitement ran through the Arkansas fanbase when it became apparent that star freshman Nick Smith Jr. was going to suit up and play Saturday's game against Mississippi State.
In just his sixth game of the season, Smith was on the court for 17 minutes and he scored five points on 2-of-7 shooting. The McDonald's All-American is extremely talented, but finding a groove with the rest of the lineup after he hasn't played since Dec. 17 is something that can't take much time.
"We don’t have a lot of time to figure this whole thing out," head coach Eric Musselman said Monday. "Every game is magnified from here on out. We have three weeks left in this season. It’s our job to try to do everything we can to win as many games as we can with a very difficult schedule.
"So that’s what we have to do. That’s our main concern. Our main concern is how do we win as many as we possibly can over this three-week, six-game segment."
After missing 13 straight games, Smith wasn't on a minutes restriction in Saturday's 70-64 loss to the Bulldogs. Having him on the court is better than not having him, especially with the skillset he brings to the team.
Musselman said that moving forward, minutes and roles will be based on how guys are playing and how the team is playing as a whole — naturally. But having Smith return this late in the season also presents disadvantages to the situation, the biggest being that most teams aren't trying to figure their lineups out by this point in the season.
"We knew that any time a player comes back there’s an adjustment for not just the player that’s been sitting out but for the other guys as well," Musselman said. "So you know, I mean, not a lot of teams are making that adjustment this late in the year and obviously we are."
According to EvanMiya, Arkansas' best lineup this season based on team efficiency margin features Smith along with Anthony Black, Ricky Council IV, Davonte Davis and Makhi Mitchell. In 92 total possessions, that group is on pace to outscore opponents by 26.5 points per 100 possessions.
The issue is, that sample size is just too small at this point. Arkansas has yet to find the go-to starting five that Musselman-coached teams have historically ironed out by now.
"It’s almost like our sixth team that we’ve built with when you look at you know the first team we had Nick and (Trevon Brazile) through that Texas exhibition game in the summer," Musselman said. "Then there was that team with no Nick through Maui. Then the team with Nick and TB against San Jose State for the one game we had the roster together, just the one game."
Following those three groups that Musselman mentioned was a "fourth team" that saw two (really one and a half) games with Smith, but no Brazile. Then there was a "fifth team" with no Brazile or Smith over the past 13 games, and now the "sixth team" with Smith back.
Arkansas' strength of schedule is currently 45th nationally, but it is closing in on the most grueling stretch of the season. The Hogs' final six games features trips to Texas A&M, Tennessee and Alabama — the top three teams in the SEC — and home games against Georgia, Florida and Kentucky.
The three road games are all Quad 1 win opportunities and the home matchups against Florida and Kentucky present possible Quad 2 wins. Clearly, each game from now until the end of the regular season is very important for postseason seeding purposes.
Arkansas' next test will be against the Texas A&M Aggies on Wednesday inside Reed Arena in College Station, Texas. The game will tipoff at 8 p.m. CT and it will be broadcast on ESPN2.