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Can the 'Cats pen the Hogs?

Kentucky is coming off a fairly easy home victory against the Lofton-less Tennesee Volunteers, but now must travel to Little Rock and the Bud Walton Arena to face the Arkasas Razorbacks.

The Razorbacks (14-7, 3-4) have been making some serious noise in the SEC West this year, owning Alabama and beating LSU.  However, they have yet to manage a victory against a team in the SEC East, either at home or away, even losing to lowly South Carolina, which makes for a puzzling dichotomy.  Still, Stan Heath's Hogs have proven to be a dangerous foe, capable of extraordinarily good or ridiculously bad basketball at any given moment.  As an example, they throttled Alabama (then ranked 8th) and gave Florida all they wanted in Gainsville, but lost at home to South Carolina.  What are we to make of this?  Well, Arkansas is a young team with not even a single senior among them but they do have lots of juniors with solid SEC game experience.

Arkansas by the numbers

We all remember Nolan Richardson's "40 minutes of Hell" defense", and the great Arkansas teams that included such players as Scottie Thurman and Corliss "The Big Nasty" Williamson.  The Hogs have not quite returned to the form of those great years, but Stan Heath has done a good job in putting some of the pieces of a successful program back into place.

The Razorbacks lost star Ronnie Brewer to the NBA draft last season and Johnathan Modica to graduation, but they retain the services of one of the better front-courts in the SEC.  Returning junior starter Charles Thomas [6'8"/235#/12p/5r] is a good rebounder who can put up points and play either forward position, capable of scoring inside or out.  Seven-foot junior center Stephen Hill [7'0"/250#/7p/4r/3b] is also back, adding yet another solid shot-blocker and (sometimes) rebounder to an already loaded front line  Hill is #1 in the SEC in blocked shots, averaging 3.29/game in league play.   The other forward is Sonny Weems [6'6"/201#/12p/5r], a top-ranked junior transfer from Fort Smith Community College, a slasher who can finish, rebound, and defend.

Arkansas' starting back court usually consists of freshman off-guard Patrick Beverley [6'1"/172#/14p/5r/3a/2s] and junior point guard Gary Ervin [6'0"/176#/9p/4r/6a], a name you may remember -- he used to play for Mississippi State, but transfered to Arkansas after his sophomore campaign.  Beverly is a wing scorer and a deadly (44%) 3-point shooter.  A full 50% of Beverley's shots are from 3, so there is no mystery as to what he is going to do.  He is also an outstanding free-throw shooter at 82%.  Beverley leads the SEC in minutes played, is 3rd in free throw %, 5th in 3-point FG%.  He puts the ball in the basket and he is always in the game.

Beverley's running mate Earvin is also a handful.  Ervin is a lightning-quick point guard who can blow by anyone and get into the lane, and his numbers bear that out.  Ervin leads the league in assists, averaging 7/game in SEC play, is second in steals/game, 3rd in minutes played, but only 7th in assist/turnover ratio.  That's because Ervin turns the ball over a lot, averaging 3.3 giveaways per game in league play.  Still, Ervin will truly test our defense because he will get in the lane, and we all know what problems that causes for the 'Cats.

The Arkansas front-court reserves consist of junior forwards Darian Townes [6'10"/255#/8p/4r/2b] and Vincent Hunter [6'10"/225#/4p/2r].  Townes fell just short of a double-figure average last year, but can also block shots and rebound the basketball.  Hunter is tall but not thick so he gets pushed around some, but is capable of scoring inside and out and blocking shots. Freshman Stefan Welsh [6'2"/180#/3p] and sophomore Sean McCurdy [6'1"/186#/2p] are the backcourt reserves who see relatively little time at just over 9 minutes/game each.

Teamwise, Arkansas plays the game at about the same tempo as the Wildcats, so both teams should be comfortable with the pace.  Arkansas is 9th in the SEC in scoring offense at 70 ppg, and UK is 4th at 73.  Kentucky is way more efficient than the Hogs offensively, ranked 38th to Arkansas' 74th.  In scoring margin, the Razorbacks are 3rd behind the second place Cats, +5 and +12 respectively.  The 'Cats have a higher effective FG% than the Razorbacks, ranking 42nd and 69th respectively. The Hogs are the better 3-point shooting team, 36.6% to 35.8% for UK.  Kentucky attempts more 3-point shots than Arkansas, 162nd to 232nd nationally.  UK and Arkansas are 2nd and 3rd in the league in field goal%, 49% and 47% respectively.

There are only a couple of offensive categories in which the Razorbacks are better than UK:   Offensive rebounding and free throw shooting.  35% of Arkansas' rebounds are offensive, vs 33% for UK.  UK is slightly better than Arkansas in rebounding margin (+3.6 to +2.7), but neither Arkansas nor UK are any good on the offensive glass -- they are 11th and 12th respectively in the SEC.  Arkansas is second in the league at 71% in free throw shooting, compared to Kentucky's 4th at 69%.  Kentucky gets more assists by about 1/game.

Defensively, the Razorbacks are as tough as they come.  They are 2nd in the SEC in FG% defense and 3-point % defense, 1st in blocked shots (UK is 3rd), 8th in steals (UK is next to last).  In defensive efficiency, the Hogs are excellent at 15th in the nation virtually tied with UK at 12th.  The Hogs are 6th in the nation in block %, compared to UK's 28th.  But when it comes to defending shots, UK is much the best overall.  Arkansas gets about 2 steals more per game than Kentucky, but turns the ball over even more, showing up dead last in turnover margin.

What it all means

No matter how you look at it, these two teams match up very well statistically.  Neither UK nor Arkansas is a huge scoring team, and both are tough defensive teams.  I figure there are about 5 critical areas to look for that will determine the outcome of this very close match up:

  1. Gary Ervin - Nobody in the SEC, and maybe even the country, is able to get into the lane better than Ervin.  If he is able to consistently get into the lane, the Hogs are likely to win.  Ervin is perhaps the quickest guard with the ball in the entire SEC, and we have absolutely nobody who is a good enough on-the-ball defender to match up with him one-on-one.  There is no possible way that Jasper can guard him, and Bradley is just not quick or determined enough.  Therefore, Smith will have to adjust the defense to clog the lane, and that is going to affect my next factor which is:
  2. Three point shooting - The Hogs are definitely going to get some open looks from three if we are going to keep Ervin out of the lane.  There is simply no way to prevent it.  If they are hot from out there, we are in for a very long night, but the alternative is to allow their big people to dunk on our heads and foul out Randolph Morris.  We have to pick our poison here.
  3. Offensive rebounding - Arkansas is bigger and stronger than we are on the front line.  They will be able to get some offensive rebounds against us, particularly if Morris isn't in the game. If they get a lot, we will be in trouble.  This isn't a situation where we have no options -- good fundamentals will keep Arkansas off the glass.  They are bigger, but we are much more mobile and our forwards shoot better from the perimeter.
  4. Steals - Arkansas will try to match up Ervin with Jasper if Derrick is going to handle the ball.  That could be trouble.  Both Arkansas guards are deft thieves, and will pick Jasper's pocket if he dribbles the ball up too high.  Bradley is going to have to do most of the ball handling, but that doesn't have to be a problem if we move well without the ball.
  5. Depth - The Arkansas guards play insane minutes, and their frontline is not that much more rested in an average game.  If our bench comes to play, we could wear them down by late in the second half.  Arkansas has very little quality depth.

I don't think Arkansas is going to have a block party on us, even though they do that very well.  Our guards are bigger, and Crawford, Meeks and Bradley are going to need to hit open jumpers.  Arkansas defends the 2 much better than the 3, so we are going to get some open looks from out there. 

Like Arkansas, if our guards are able to consistently get into the lane, it will be tough for the Hogs to deal with.  Their guards are too small to handle Meeks and Crawford from the foul line in, and their bigs are going to have to help.  That would mean a big night for Randolph Morris.  I am sure Smith will push our backcourt hard to force the issue.

The bottom line: It is going to be a tough game for Kentucky against an equally capable foe on the road.  I give us no better than a 50-50 chance at winning this game, because Arkansas will force us to do a lot of things we don't want to do.  But Arkansas is streaky -- tough while they are hot, but they tend to get into droughts that seem never-ending when they are cold.  I predict this will be a close, hard-fought contest very much like the Georgia game, and likely to come down to late possessions to determine the winner.