Arkansas is relying on dynamic freshmen to try and make a third consecutive Elite Eight

DES MOINES, Iowa — CBS, ESPN and NBC have Arkansas freshmen Nick Smith Jr. and Anthony Black among the top 10 picks in this summer’s NBA draft.

Ask yourself the question: How come – and especially on Southeastern Conference basketball courts – have the Razorbacks lost more games than they have won in league competition?

“They have some of the best athletes in the country,” Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts said. “They have three or four potential NBA guys. … They have depth, size and great athletic ability.

Roberts took part in courtside and media sessions for head coach Bill Self in the postseason after Self underwent a cardiac catheterization last week in Kansas City, Mo.

The eighth-seeded Razorbacks (21-13), who will face top-seeded Kansas (28-7) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at 4:15 p.m. Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena, also have something else vitally important this time of year : a little momentum thanks to a double-digit win.

“I don’t think a lot of people believed in us (Thursday) going into that game,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said of the Razorbacks’ 73-63 victory over ninth-seeded Illinois in their first tournament . “We have to play with a clear mind and not feel the pressure, which I don’t think we felt the pressure (Thursday).”

Musselman said the Razorbacks, who played in the Elite Eight for the past two years under the former Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings head coach, will continue to take the nothing-to-lose approach in the NCAA tournament.

“I don’t think we’re going to feel the pressure going into the Kansas game,” Musselman said. “We know this is a team that is the defending champion and the No. 1 seed. Our guys are smart – they’re on Twitter and Instagram. They know what we’re playing against and we have incredible respect for (the Jayhawks).”

Part of the reason the Razorbacks have struggled more than expected this season — they were 8-10 in SEC play — goes back to that ranking of their top two NBA prospects: freshmen. Smith (6-5, 185) played in less than half of Arkansas’ games (15 of 34) due to injury, while Black played in all 34.

The Razorbacks prevailed against the Illini despite Smith, who is second on the team with 13.5 points per game, shooting just 2-for-10. He was 6-for-20 in the previous game, a loss in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals to Texas A&M, but is able to fill the board quickly.

Smith, who is from Jacksonville, Ark., scored a total of 50 points in back-to-back games against Alabama and Georgia in late February.

“Nick is a terrific player, and we recruited Nick so I got to know Nick and his family,” Roberts said. “He can score the ball, but he affects the game in other ways too. He can get into the fast lane and it’s long. He plays very, very aggressive and can create for others as well.

“He is the main target. He’s a guy that we can’t let him go down on us anytime soon, because he could be having a great night, and we know it.

A year ago, Black (6-7, 200) was leading Duncanville High School to a Class 6A state title, a crown that the mighty school was eventually stripped of by the University Interscholastic League after it was ruled that Black will he transferred from Coppell to Duncanville before his senior season for “athletic purposes”. He has since excelled in his short stint in Fayetteville, Ark., ranking third on the team with 12.8 points per game.

“He can play multiple positions,” Roberts said. “One thing about Anthony: he’s always been a great passer, but now his body is stronger than it was in high school. He is explosive in getting to the basket and has also become a good defender. There’s no question that he has an NBA career ahead of him and he has a great basketball IQ.”

Self led the Jayhawks practice on Friday, as he has since Kansas moved to Des Moines this week. It is unknown whether he will coach against Arkansas on Saturday, after Roberts called shots in the Big 12 tournament and Kansas’ 96-68 opening round win over Howard in the NCAA tournament.

Saturday’s winner moves on to the Sweet 16 in Kansas City next week.

“We all want coach (Self) to be as healthy as possible and get back to coaching as fast as possible,” said Musselman. “That said, the (Jayhawks) are a well oiled machine in the way they go about their business and the way they execute. … At this juncture with the short turnaround, a lot depends on player productivity and who has a big game, and who can try to absorb as much gameplan-wise as possible into a short turnaround.

“When you win a game in this tournament, the second game becomes a little more difficult from a preparation point of view.”

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