The Arkansas men’s basketball team is undeniably one of the hottest teams in the Southeastern Conference. The Hardwood Hogs are riding a seven-game conference winning streak that dates back to Jan. 20.
Prior to the start of the winning streak, Razorback forward and former Indiana Hoosier Justin Smith underwent ankle surgery to repair an injury suffered in the conference opener at Auburn on Dec. 30. Directly after Smith’s injury, the Hogs dropped four of their next five outings.
Smith returned to action earlier than expected Jan. 16 against Alabama, but was virtually a non-factor in the outing, posting five points and one rebound. Since then, though, Smith and the Hogs have been a nearly unstoppable force within the conference.
"He came back a little early from the injury because he’s a great teammate and he cares about winning,” Razorback head coach Eric Musselman said after Tuesday’s win over Florida. “He wasn’t fully healthy...but he’s playing like we thought he would be capable of.”
Standing at 6-feet-7-inches tall, Smith flies through the air with a 40-plus-inch vertical. The Buffalo Grove, Illinois, native has been a monster on the boards throughout his career. This was a much needed skillset for an Arkansas team that clocked in at No. 333 in the country in rebounds per game during the 2019-20 season.
Smith averaged nearly 140 rebounds per season during his three years at Indiana. As a junior last season, he was tied for second on the Hoosier squad averaging 5.2 rebounds per game. He showed out with eight boards in last season’s meeting between the Hogs and Hoosiers. So, naturally, Musselman targeted Smith heavily once he entered the transfer portal over the offseason.
Right out of the gate this season, Smith lived on the backboards. While he was able to provide Arkansas with consistent scoring, he was also adding extra possessions with offensive boards and strong post-play. He saw a career-high 17 rebounds during the Dec. 20 victory over Oral Roberts.
“He’s as good of an offensive rebounder as I’ve coached,” Musselman said after the Oral Roberts game. “Defensively it’s really hard to take him off the floor because he can guard one through five. He was really effective on the offensive boards and finishing around the rims in the second half.”
After the injury, the Hogs felt his absence. During the stretch without Smith, including his lackluster performance at Alabama, the Hogs lost the rebounding battle in three of five games and posted only 12 offensive rebounds per game. It was clear that something was missing for the squad.
That something proved to be Justin Smith. Since his return to “full health,” Arkansas has not lost an SEC game. Smith has posted just over 12 points and six rebounds per outing over the seven game conference winning-streak. The team has won five of the seven rebounding battles.
“He’s playing off the charts right now. When he plays with such incredible effort and energy, I mean there’s not many guys who have his speed, quickness and strength all in combination. He’s able to play this way because he’s fully healthy again,” Musselman said after the Florida game.
The impact of Smith has clearly boosted the young Hogs. He is posting career-high stats with 11.8 points per game and a team-leading 6.4 rebounds per game. His experience and virtually unlimited motor provides the squad the opportunity to stay competitive early and often in games against the SEC’s top competition.
As Arkansas continues its conference run, it seems Smith will remain a centerpiece to the team's game plan. The Hogs were originally scheduled to travel to College Station, Texas, to take on the Texas A&M Aggies on Saturday evening, but game was canceled because of ongoing COVID-19 issues within Texas' program. Musselman is working with the league to see if they can add a non-conference game.