It's time to call the Hogs to Rupp Arena, and the Boss Hog this year is former UK Unforgettable, John Pelphrey. This is a scene that is likely to be rivaled only by the return of Rick Pitino to Rupp Arena as head coach of the Louisville Cardinals, although I rather doubt the reception will be anywhere near as hostile.
Pelphrey's first year at Arkansas has been typical, with good basketball and bad basketball showing up from time to time, and lots of mediocre in between. Arkansas returns a senior-dominated team with lots of quality talent, outstanding athleticism, and some serious size. Arkansas has no less than six (6) seniors on this team, and ten (10) players who see seven minutes or more per game.
For more about Arkansas from a blogger's perspective, please visit our good friends at Razorback Expats.
The top contributors for the Razorbacks are as follows:
Per Game Averages
Expected starters are highlighted in yellow, as always.
Arkansas has lots of big, strong, talented, athletic bodies to throw at the Cats. They also have Patrick Beverly, a slick shooting guard who has really made his name this year as a rebounder, averaging almost seven per contest. Arkansas is also a good passing team, with 5 players averaging close to or better than 2 assists/game.
Arkansas presents some serious matchup problems for the Cats, but not in the back court. Gary Ervin is blazingly quick off the bounce, too quick, really, for Ramel Bradley. Fortunately for Kentucky, he isn't a huge threat from the perimeter. But he will look to run the floor as much as possible. Sonny Weems is the leading scorer and a deadly 3-point shooter. I would guess that our unexpected defensive stopper, Joe Crawford, will be tasked with guarding Weems. That would seem to be a big job for Joe, but he has been very good lately defensively as well as offensively. Ramon Harris would seem to be kentucky's option on Patrick Beverly, and that does present a bit of a problem, because Beverly is much quicker than Harris. We'll have to see how Gillispie handles that.
But on the inside, we do have matchup issues. Steven Hill is a huge guy, and although he isn't the quickest, he is a good shot-blocker and defender. The other big buy is Michael Washington at 6'10", 224#. Both bigs average about the same, but I would expect Patterson would be guarded by Hill, and Stevenson/Coury would have to deal with Washington.
Arkansas is a much deeper team than the Cats, and unlike Tennessee, they have serious size to go with it. This is a big challenge for the Iron Wildcats, who have been logging ridiculous minutes every game.
We know exactly what to expect from a John Pelphrey offense, especially with a team as deep and experienced as this one. Arkansas will want to press and run as much as possible, and get Kentucky into a track meet. We know the danger here, as Kentucky does not do particularly well in transition defense, and is best when its half-court defense has a chance to get set. What we will see is a battle between the two teams for tempo control, and Kentucky has not lost that battle yet in conference, even against the wildly up-tempo Tennessee.
Pelphrey undoubtedly runs a version of the Pitino motion offense, and it can be very effective as we saw during the Louisville game. Kentucky must keep the pressure on the Razorbacks and fight over screens if they are to be successful, particularly when Beverly has the ball. Beverly is capable of getting hot, and if he does, he will present serious defensive problems for the Cats. Weems is also deadly coming off screens, and it will require all our skill to successfully defend those two guys.
No mysteries here, either. Arkansas will press and pressure the Cats, but they will also mix in a zone. Kentucky has not responded well to switching defenses, and like Pitino, that is something that John Pelphrey really likes to do. It flummoxed the Cats when they played Louisville, and Georgia went on big runs when they changed defenses against us. I have no doubt that Coach Gillispie has been trying to address this with his charges, and I surely do hope it is sinking in.
Kentucky must avoid back-court turnovers, because those are what drives the Arkansas defensive efficiency machine. It also creates opportunities for transition offense, which Kentucky handles poorly. In addition, it forces UK's bigs to run the floor even more, and with our depth issues, the backcourt turnovers really hurt us.
Arkansas will want to keep Patterson from having a big day, and if his lineage is as true as I suspect, Patrick will be looking at double-teams all day long. Steven Hill is a good enough defender to give Patterson trouble all by himself, and the addition of a double team from the top will make him have to work very hard for baskets today. Fortunately, Pat is a great passer out of the double team, so let's hope our weak-side players cut to the hole like they are supposed to. Unfortunately, Patrick will also have to deal with the 6'10" Stephen Hunter, who has been playing well lately and will likely be relieving either Hill or Washington.
Intangibles and injuries:
Both teams are as healthy as they have been all season. Jodie Meeks is unlikely to play in this game, but he hasn't played in many, so that is just something the Cats have had to deal with all year long. Kentucky is playing at home, and Pelphrey's presence on the Arkansas bench will draw a sellout for sure. The distraction of the Mills situation could have an impact on team harmony. Advantage -- Kentucky.
Kentucky wins if:
- They avoid turnovers. If the Razorbacks are +5 or greater, we will be in trouble.
- Patterson is able to produce in spite of the attention he gets.
- Crawford is able to contain Sonny Weems.
- Kentucky keeps the Razorbacks off the offensive glass.
- Arkansas puts us on the line a lot.
Arkansas wins if:
- They are able to frustrate Patterson.
- They are able to get Weems off early.
- Patterson or Stevenson get in foul trouble.
- They pound us on the offensive glass.
- They get the tempo up into the 70's.
Arkansas is the toughest team we have faced since Vanderbilt, and although they don't have the in-your-face defensive pressure that so devastated us down in Nashville, they are bigger, stronger, and just as athletic as Kentucky, not to mention much deeper. This is a very dangerous basketball team, and as they showed LSU the other day, they are capable of serious outbursts of offensive basketball.
Kentucky, on the other hand, has been doing just enough to get by. I daresay that won't be enough today, because if we give the same effort we gave against Georgia, I think we will be looking at a loss. This is a very big game against a very tough, well coached team, and if the Cats do not respond correctly, things are likely to go south in a hurry.
But the Cats have been nothing if not resilient, and many teams have been frustrated trying to score consistently in the half-court against Kentucky. This team has been very tough in the SEC season, and that toughness has, for the most part, been the most consistent feature of this team. Joe Crawford, against all odds, has become a defensive stopper, and Stevenson and Harris continue to contribute with hustle, rebounding and shot-blocking.
Look for a hard-fought struggle today with lots of fouls. Arkansas will try to force the pace, but the Cats will have none of it. If Kentucky can force Arkansas into a half-court game without turning the ball over a lot in the back court, we have a good chance to come away with the victory.