Through Kentucky’s improvement, there is one thing that has been missing, a controlled win. While Florida made some runs, the Wildcats earned such a victory on Saturday in a wire-to-wire win over the Gators.
After starting 1-3 in the conference, Kentucky is now on a six-game SEC win streak and is tied with Auburn for third in the conference (note: two-way tie for second between Tennessee and Texas A&M). In that stretch, John Calipari’s motto to his team has been, ‘win the day,’ and that is precisely what they have done.
The Wildcats are not overpowering their opponents but are building upon each performance, and they will hope to do the same on Tuesday at home against a tough Arkansas team.
Similar to Kentucky, the Razorbacks entered the season with very high expectations but have fallen short. After starting the season in the Top 10, Arkansas fell out of the Top 25 rankings after losing five of their first six conference games. Since then, they have started a four-game win streak to get back to .500.
The Razorbacks are a team that’s struggled mightily on the road, just 1-5 on the season. This past weekend, they picked up their first road victory in a narrow two-point win over South Carolina. However, they are capable, ranked 29th in the NET, which is currently the second-highest of Kentucky’s remaining opponents.
In fact, KenPom has Arkansas ranked 27th, six spots ahead of the Wildcats.
Let’s take a closer look at this matchup.
Let the Playmakers Continue to Make Plays
Kentucky’s offense early in the season drew a lot of criticism, but changes have been made, and the Wildcats are executing on the offensive end as well as they have all season. A big reason for that is that the playmakers are making plays, specifically Antonio Reeves and Cason Wallace.
Creating advantages off-the-dribble is where Cason Wallace thrives on: 89th %ILE in three-pointers OTD with 1.10 points-per-play. pic.twitter.com/GJpniXqcsV— ShotQuality (@Shot_Quality) February 6, 2023
The offense has not been incredibly intricate but instead has been rather simple. Against Ole Miss and Florida last week, Reeves and Wallace received the ball in high ball-screening action, in which they excelled in. As proof, Reeves scored a season-high 27 points against Ole Miss, and Wallace scored 20 points against Florida, his second-highest point total of the season.
Where the two have been most important is when the play breaks down. Obviously, not everything is going to go to plan, but Reeves and Wallace can improvise and make a play at the end of the shot clock due to their three-level scoring.
I am sure Kentucky’s offense will continue to add new wrinkles, but at its core, let your playmakers make plays.
In the offseason, Arkansas brought in eleven players from high school recruiting and the transfer portal to mix with some key players on the roster. However, depth, presumed to be a strength, has become their biggest weakness.
Just four Razorbacks have played in every game this season due to injury. The two headlining injuries have been Trevon Brazile, who tore his ACL, and Nick Smith, due to an unspecified knee injury, though the latter is expected to return at some point in the coming weeks.
For an example of just how limited the Arkansas lineup has become, three players played all forty minutes for Arkansas in their last game against South Carolina. They also rely heavily on junior guard Ricky Council IV for scoring, as he’s averaging a team-high 17 points per game. Anthony Black isn’t far behind at 12.5 ppg (Smith is averaging 12.8 ppg but is unlikely to play Tuesday).
On the other hand, Kentucky is not reliant on just one player. Against Florida, Kentucky’s two leading scorers, Antonio Reeves and Oscar Tshiebwe, combined for just eight points, while Fredrick, Toppin, and Wallace combined for 49 points.
In their seven-to-eight-man lineup, the Wildcats have different players that are capable and have proven they can step up. That doesn’t include Daimion Collins and Adou Thiero that are even deeper in the lineup and have provided good minutes as of late.
As Sahvir Wheeler has said several times, games are like a tightrope, and Kentucky should be prepared to use their depth to be the last one holding it.
Match the Physicality
One consistent thing about Eric Musselman’s Arkansas teams is that they are going to play hard and physical. Kentucky will need to match that intensity on Tuesday night.
As in every game that Kentucky will play the rest of the season, they will need to be physical and rebound their opponent, but it will be more important to do so against this Arkansas team.
The Razorbacks are a team that likes to crash the glass hard from the perimeter, and they have size at the guard positions. In fact, two of their three leading rebounders (Brazile is first but out for the season) are starting guards Davonte Davis and Anthony Black. Controlling the defensive glass will, in turn, allow Kentucky to push the ball in transition.
On the other end, the Wildcats will need to crash the glass hard for second-chance points, as points may be hard to come by against a Razorback defense that is ranked in the top 15 in defense efficiency. The best way to combat poor shooting is second-chance opportunities around the rim.
To accomplish both of these tasks, the Wildcats are going to have to “fight,” as Oscar Tshiebwe would say.
Kentucky Wildcats (16-7) vs. Arkansas Razorbacks (16-7)
Time/Date: 9:00 pm ET on Tuesday, February 7th, 2023
Location: Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY
TV Channel: ESPN
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and SEC Network (check local listings).
Odds: DraftKings Sportsbook has Kentucky -4. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives the Wildcats a 64.8% edge. However, Bart Torvik’s computer models continue to be low on the Wildcats and give Kentucky a 54% chance, while KenPom is at 59%.