Today, we are going to do this a little differently. Ken and I will be collaborating on this pre-game -- I will be doing the first part, and Ken will be doing the position analysis and conclusions.
The Kentucky Wildcats versus the Arkansas Razorbacks. This is a game that used to inspire tremendous passion among both fan bases when Rick Pitino prowled the sidelines for Kentucky, and Nolan Richardson commanded the Hogs.
These days, the Hogs have fallen on harder times, and are in the process of rebuilding their once-proud and powerful program. For a time in the 1990's, the Arkansas Razorbacks were the equals of the Kentucky Wildcats in the SEC, as their national championship during that era will attest.
This Arkansas team has played a difficult schedule. Major victories include Missouri St. Bears and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Major losses have come against the Oklahoma Sooners, Baylor Bears, Texas Longhorns and Florida Gators.
Let's take a quick look at the comparison between the Hogs and the 'Cats, courtesy of Statsheet.com:
|Rank and Records||ARK||UK|
|Strength of Schedule||#48||#129|
Obviously, the Wildcats in Rupp Arena will be as tough as any test the Razorbacks have faced all year. If Kentucky manages to roast the Hogs, they will ascend to the pinnacle of the NCAA basketball rankings for the first time since 2002-2003.
More after the jump.
We will begin the analysis by the usual look at the dashboard. Don't forget, this thing is interactive.
Four Factors Analysis
As usual, thanks to A Sea of Blue member sylvar for producing the dashboard application above.
Looking at the whole year, it is easy to see that the Wildcats are more efficient both on the offensive and defensive end. But the whole year is not a good way to look at the Hogs. Grab the left slider above and move it over to the right until you see the last four data points. Those are the games for which Arkansas guard Courtney Fortson have been available.
When we look at the Razorbacks this way, we see that the offensive efficiency has improved. This shows better if you look at the last six games instead of the last four, and Arkansas is approaching the efficiency of Kentucky on offense. On defense, the Hogs have not fared as well, and that is likely the area that will wind up deciding this game. If UK plays their average offensive and defensive game, UK will win.
Looking more closely at the Four Factors for the last four games, the offensive statistics have become competitive with Kentucky. The Hogs take better care of the ball, but are significantly worse in OR% and FTR%
Defensively, the Razorbacks are allowing teams to shoot over 50% eFG, while the Wildcats are holding teams around 45% or so. Also, UK has done a better job of forcing turnovers over the last four games than the Razorbacks, and sends opponents to the line less.
Both teams have been shooting okay from the 3-point arc over the last four games, although Arkansas really only has one major 3-point threat in Rotnei Clarke. The Hogs take more 3-point shots than the 'Cats do, which can be bad news if Clarke is hot. The Razorbacks have also tended to use their bench more, which is in line with Calipari's philosophy of paring down his rotation later in the season. Tempo-wise, both teams play at a fast pace, but the faster the pace today, the more it favors Kentucky.
Arkansas Razorbacks Basketball Roster
|Marcus Britt||12||G||Starter, limited role||198||6-3||junior|
|Glenn Bryant||5||F||Limited role||190||6-7||freshman|
|Rotnei Clarke||15||G||Starter, role player||184||6-0||sophomore|
|Stephen Cox||25||G||Limited role||201||6-3||junior|
|Jemal Farmer||2||G||Significant contributor||213||6-5||junior|
|Courtney Fortson||4||G||Starter, go-to guy||180||5-11||sophomore|
|Delvon Johnson||21||F||Limited role||220||6-9||junior|
|Julysses Nobles||23||G||Role player||170||6-1||freshman|
|Marshawn Powell||33||F||Starter, major contributor||220||6-7||freshman|
|Michael Washington||00||F||Starter, major contributor||239||6-9||senior|
|Stefan Welsh||14||G||Significant contributor||185||6-3||senior|
Position Analysis: Point guard
Finding a quicker, more effective opposition point guard than Arkansas' Courtney Fortson is a tall task indeed. John Calipari and his troops will this afternoon be faced with a penetrating, get-to-the-rim nightmare of a player.
Fortson, who stands only 5'11", will be playing in only his fifth game of the season due to a suspension, but in his four previous efforts he's played as if he's missed no time at all. Fortson leads the SEC in assists, averaging a terrific 8.3 per game, to go along with his 16.3 points per game average. Although not a serious three-point threat, he's only making 27.8% of his trey tries, he more than makes up for that weakness with his ability to penetrate and dish, or take it to the rim himself.
Numerous theories abound regarding who Calipari will select to guard to ultra-quick Fortson. With UK's point guard John Wall being severely defensively challenged, especially when Wall's lateral speed is taken to task, Calipari may opt to go with either DeAndre Liggins, Ramon Harris, or Eric Bledsoe. Putting the 6'6" Liggins, or the 6'7" Harris on Fortson would provide a serious size advantage for the 'Cats, but will that size advantage be negated by Fortson's quickness? Bledsoe is certainly quick enough to stay with Fortson, but will it be wise to risk the possibility of Bledsoe picking up excessive fouls while attempting to stay with the Arkansas point guard? Will the 'Cats throw a 2-3 zone look (gasp!) at Fortson, making it more difficult for him to penetrate and dish to his big men teammates, as well as forcing Arkansas into playing a perimeter game?
In the end, I look for Calipari and the 'Cats to throw several different defensive looks at the Hogs this afternoon, hopefully forcing Fortson into making mistakes. He is, after all, averaging 5.0 turnovers per game, and had seven turnovers against Alabama, and six versus Texas.
On the flip side of the point guard coin stands one John Wall, who provides Arkansas with a defensive nightmare as well. The two point guards are mirror images of one another in many ways, with the exception of three-point shooting, where Wall holds a distinct advantage by making 34.9% of his trey attempts, although he has made only 2 of 10 tries in SEC play. But Wall creates, through his quickness and freakish ability to get to the rim, numerous opportunities for his teammates, especially on the fast break, and secondary break.
Arkansas coach John Pelphrey will probably utilize a zone in an attempt to control Wall, but would be wise not to press the 'Cats, leaving Wall free to create in the open floor. Pelphrey might utilize the Rick Pitino defensive blueprint by releasing his guards on the shot, picking up Wall and/or Eric Bledsoe well before they have an opportunity to get into full-blown fast break mode.
But, whichever defenses the two coaches opt to use, I expect both guards to do their best to take advantage of their respective skill-set. Which guard is the most successful in that endeavor will go a long way in determining who leaves Rupp Arena with a smile on their face.
Position Analysis: Shooting guard
Arkansas two-guard, and one time UK target, 6'0" sophomore Rotnei Clarke, is on a roll. As noted above, he's making 49.3% of his three-point tries, and he tries often; Clarke averages eight three-point attempts per game. Coupled with his incredible accuracy, is Clarke's ability to get off his shot in a flash, which renders him a tough man to guard, regardless of his defenders size. If a defender face guards him, he has the requisite speed to dribble-drive around his man.
While a UK defense might off-set Fortson's effectiveness, it will play directly into Clarke's hot hand. Can we say, pick your poison?
Simply put, Kentucky must find a way to stay with Clarke, at all times. He's within his range as soon as he steps across half court.
UK's Eric Bledsoe provides the Razorbacks with a real dilemma. He can shoot from outside, he can penetrate to the rim, he can dish to teammates. He's a point guard, with the shooting ability of a two-guard, and he's been UK's best player over the last couple of weeks.
Position Analysis: Small Forward
While not a true small forward, junior Marcus Britt will be manning the 3 spot this afternoon for Arkansas. The athletic, but smallish Britt stands only 6'3", but he plays bigger by utilizing his athleticism. Britt has also proved to be an excellent interior passer; he's averaging over two assists per game.
Britt won't score a boat-load of points, he averages only 4.3 point per game in 27.4 minutes of action per game, but his defensive tenacity makes his a valuable commodity for John Pelphrey.
Kentucky's Darius Miller will absolutely have to step up his offensive and defensive efforts this afternoon. Although he did play well in UK's last outing against Auburn, he's not consistently taking advantage of his overall capabilities. When feeling confident, Miller is talented enough to be a real three-point threat, as evidence by his 41.5% accuracy from long range. And with the real possibility of UK facing a zone today, his solid shooting will go a long way in keeping the Razorback defense honest.
Position analysis: Power Forward
Marshawn Powell, a 6'7" 220 lb freshman, has come onto the college basketball scene with real authority. Averaging a healthy 15.8 points per game and a team-leading 6.7 rebounds per game, he'll challenge UK's interior defenders with his athleticism and ability to finish at the rim; he's making 61.9% of his shots; 74.2% of his two-point tries.
Patrick Patterson, of course, provides UK with a scoring threat, both down low on the blocks, and from the outside. Patterson's ability to rebound, finish at the rim, and step out and make and take the mid-range jumper should challenge Arkansas' defensive alignment ... if only his teammates will get him the ball.
After taking only six shots last week versus and undersized Auburn Tiger team, I look for the 'Cats to get the big fella the ball much more often this afternoon.
Advantage: Slight Kentucky
Position Analysis: Center
Michael Washington, although not a true center at 6'9", is a truly athletic player. Washington, though, has been limited of late with a bad back, which has adversely effected his ability to play to full capacity. Washington is averaging 13.5 points per game, in only 24.5 minutes per game, so he still poses a scoring threat to opponents.
At 6'11", Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins will have no one to seriously challenge his size and uncanny ability to get off his shot. Opponents have been collapsing on him on the catch, and his early recognition of such, has resulted in an increased assist total for UK's big man. Cousins' has also developed a nice up-and-under move, which is almost impossible to defend.
Like his down-low counterpart, Patrick Patterson, Cousins only got off six shots versus Auburn last weekend. Today, though, I look for John Calipari to take advantage of his big man's size advantage by making him the focal point of the offense.
John Pelphrey will utilize a number of players off of his bench, led by 6'3" senior guard Stefan Welsh, 6'5" junior swing Jemal Farmer, 6'9" junior forward Delvin Johnson, and 6'1" freshman guard Julysses Nobles.
All of the above players have started games this year for the Hogs, therefore providing Pelphrey with experience off the bench.
Welsh is a streaky three-point shooter, and is a player UK must man-up on when he enters the game. The others, particularly Farmer (7.9 point per game), are capable of scoring in a variety of ways.
Look for John Calipari to use DeAndre Liggins today, possibly more than ever. Liggins', and Ramon Harris' defense will be at a premium this afternoon in an effort to thwart Fortson and Clarke. Daniel Orton will also be called upon to provide his stellar paint defense.
If Arkansas uses a zone, Darnell Dodson, because of his three-point shooting, may see increased playing time, although he's averaging only 10 minutes per game in SEC play.
Simple really -- UK must stop Courtney Fortson from penetrating, and Rotnei Clarke from shooting like the second-coming of Mark Price. Do that, and the 'Cats win going away.
But, UK's previous three-point defense has not been inspiring, leaving open the possibility of a legitimate shootout at Rupp Arena this afternoon. If that comes to fruition, as we all know, anything can happen. Although UK holds advantages in nearly all the pertinent categories, Arkansas has been playing much better with Fortson at the helm. And allowing the Hogs to gain confidence as the game progresses could be a lethal turn of events for the 'Cats.
But, UK has shown an uncanny ability to finish games strong ... the oft repeated, "Will to win"... coming to the forefront. Today should be no different, and with a No. 1 ranking on the line, I look for the 'Cats to play a much more complete game than they did last week against Auburn.
Projected score: Kentucky 81 Arkansas 70