After a stunning upset at Auburn last weekend, Kentucky needed a bounceback win in the worst way in a venue where winning has never been easy.
Arkansas has had UK's number for much of John Calipari's tenure as the Razorbacks had won three straight at home vs.the Cats and four of six overall in regular-season matchups. Whether it was that recent success or UK needing a rebound performance, the Cats came out with maybe their best effort of the season and jumped out to a quick lead over the Hogs and silenced Bud Walton Arena.
UK would maintain control throughout thanks to big games from Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and even Derek Willis. Though Arkansas would make several mini-runs to stay in the game, the Cats maintained a double-digit lead for most of the game and cruised to an 80-66 win.
Here is a look at our quick takeaways from the game.
Willis Earns Well-Deserved Start & Runs With It
The comparison between this team and the 2010-11 Final Four club has been made already, and Derek Willis may just be this year's version of what Josh Harrellson was for that team.
Heck, the way Willis has played these past two games, he may end up being better than what Harrellson was. Though they're different player, Willis has been giving a similar kind of rebounding and post presence that Jorts gave that thin '11 squad.
With Skal being nonexistent at times while Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee have been in frequent foul trouble, UK has desperately needed someone to step up and give the Cats valuable minutes in the paint.
Willis has not only done that, but has been a force on both ends of the court. He took it to another level vs. the Hogs with four blocks and affected several other shots to make life hard for the Hogs to get anything in the paint. Willis also chipped in 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting with seven boards.
If this had been the first time you'd watched Kentucky this season, you'd have thought he was the guy projected to be a lottery pick.
Throw it down, Derek. One time. Throw it down. pic.twitter.com/8RiOldr9a6— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 22, 2016
As long as Willis is playing like this, UK will be just fine.
Hawk Inching Closer to Return
Seeing Derek Willis earn a starting spot has to be a good motivator for Dominique Hawkins to get back to action sooner rather than later. Before Hawk went down with his high ankle sprain, there's no question he was closer to earning a starting spot than Willis, even if they play different positions.
But Hawk has been sidelined for two weeks now, and though he looks close to a return, did not play against the Hogs Thursday night. The good news is he was running, jumping, cutting, and shooting well in warmups while showing no limp. Calipari still opted to hold Hawkins out, perhaps to play him Saturday for what will be a quick turnaround vs Vanderbilt.
Murray Was Killing Offense, Then He Carried It
You have to live with the good and the bad when you have a volume shooter like Jamal Murray, who can score 30 on a given night, then toss up a 3-of-14 shooting effort the next game. Unfortunately for Murray, the latter has been more representative of his recent play.
Against Arkansas, Murray missed his first seven shots, meaning he'd endured an 8-of-29 streak dating back to the Auburn game. That's crippling to an offense, and it'd done just that to UK.
Again, you have to live with that as much as an offensive load as Murray is asked to carry. No one else other than Ulis has proven to be a consistent offensive threat night in and night out, which is forcing Murray to attempt 20+ shots per game.
Until guys like Skal and Briscoe can start giving this team more offensively, Murray is going to have to keep attempting a lot of shots. Just don't call him a ball hog for doing something this team unfortunately needs him to do.
The good news is Murray got hot as the game wore on and hit six of his next eight shots as UK surged out to an 18-point lead as he finished with 19 points. When this team is clicking and Murray is hot, UK can go toe-to-toe with anyone.
Skal Woke Up
Coming into this game, Skal Labissiere was averaging just 3.1 points over his last eight games. His confidence has been at an all-time low, but Calipari made it sound as though the young freshman was coming along enough that a breakout game was coming.
It came against Arkansas, and boy did UK need it. With both Lee and Alex in foul trouble most of this game, Skal needed to step up and give UK another paint presence and a bucket here and there. He did that and more, finishing with 11 points and three blocks.
Skal showing flashes of what was so intriguing at Hoop Summit - rim protection/rim run, tip dunk, mid-range stroke.
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) January 22, 2016
It wasn't great by any means, but it was exactly what UK needs from Skal.