Did the bubble just burst on the 2022-23 season for the Kentucky Wildcats?
Unlikely, but this was a painful setback that definitely made things dicier when it comes to making the Big Dance.
Coming into the week, Coach John Calipari and the Wildcats were hanging by a thread to make this year’s NCAA Tournament, and another home loss, this time an 88-73 defeat to Arkansas on Tuesday night at Rupp Arena, was a bad loss to take at home.
Calipari pulled out all the stops against Arkansas, playing a 2-3 zone on multiple possessions, and the Cats even scored on an inbound play on an Oscar Tshiebwe jumper, neither of which has been part of Coach John Calipari’s script this season.
After making back-to-back turnovers to open the second half, Kentucky trailed 47-40 and Arkansas keep the pressure on by shooting better than 60 percent from the field to jump out to a 72-58 advantage with less than seven minutes remaining.
The Wildcats never could mount a comeback and now fall to 16-8 (7-4) on the season. The Wildcats have now lost three home games this season inside Rupp Arena.
Here are the four things you need to know from a disappointing loss.
A physical first half created a loud Rupp Arena crowd as Calipari was whistled for a technical foul with 33.3 seconds left in the half as assistant coaches and players had to restrain the Kentucky coach from getting ejected. Arkansas tested the Wildcats in the paint and an up-tempo game provided several highlights with blocked shots, bodies on the floor, and high-flying dunk attempts as the Razorbacks led 41-40 at halftime. Unfortunately, Kentucky was never able to regain its focus and got manhandled by Arkansas in the second half.
Wallace, Livingston continue to impress
Once again, the bright spot on Tuesday was the play of freshmen Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston in a losing effort.
Despite battling stiffness in his back, Wallace is the undisputed leader of the Kentucky offense, either hitting key jump shots or weaving his way to the rim to score off the bounce. He was forced to play big minutes on Tuesday after Sahvir Wheeler was unavailable due to an ankle injury during practice. Wallace led the team with 24 points.
Livingston has also established himself as a key piece of the half-court offense, hitting timely shots and extended the floor with his three-point range. The freshman duo has become increasingly more important as Tshiebwe’s offensive numbers have dropped of late against more physical post players.
Daimion Collins is back in the rotation
Daimion Collins has found his role as a backup to Tshiebwe, who has a tendency to get into foul trouble and needs a fresh set of legs to be productive. Collins answered the call early, providing a spark off the bench on Tuesday, scoring seven points in six minutes of action that included a short jumper to close the half. Collins can certainly help UK on the offensive end with his length and athleticism but can be a liability on defense against more physical players. Collins only played a couple of minutes in the second half but should play key minutes from here on as Kentucky’s best rim protector.
What’s next for the Cats?
Kentucky now faces its final seven games of the regular season with three home games (No. 6 Tennessee, Auburn, and Vanderbilt) and four road trips (at Georgia, Mississippi State, Florida, and Arkansas). The Wildcats need to run the table in hopes of getting a high enough seed to make a serious run at the SEC Tournament in Nashville.