On Wednesday, the Kentucky Wildcats had the opportunity to secure the 3-seed and a double-bye in next week’s SEC Tournament. However, they lost to a hot Vanderbilt team that has now won seven of their last eight games.
The Wildcats still have that same opportunity, but this time on the road and against a tougher opponent, the Arkansas Razorbacks. The two teams faced off earlier in February, with Arkansas coming out on top after a dominant second-half performance.
The matchup will look a bit different this time as the Razorbacks have returned their highly touted freshman, Nick Smith Jr. After not playing for nearly two months due to injury, it seems that the projected lottery pick has found his footing, averaging 18 points per game over his last four games.
With Smith back on the roster Arkansas has shown that they are one of the most talented teams in the SEC, nearly beating an Alabama team that is seen as a favorite for the National Title. A loss on Saturday doesn’t necessarily hurt Kentucky, but a win would give them another Quad 1 victory for their resume, helping their case for a higher tournament seed.
Making this game even tougher is the potential for starting point guard Cason Wallace to miss this game due to a leg injury suffered vs. Vanderbilt. It doesn’t appear to be a long-term issue, but with such a quick turnaround, the odds of him playing Saturday aren’t great.
That’s on top of Sahvir Wheeler being out for several weeks due to a surgical procedure he had Wednesday. So Kentucky could be down to Antonio Reeves and Adou Thiero handling the point guard duties Saturday.
Let’s take a closer look at this matchup.
Force Arkansas Out of the Paint
Arkansas has great athletes and because of that, they are very aggressive in trying to get to the rim. In fact, two of their three leading scorers - Anthony Black and Ricky Council - shoot 33 percent or less from three, but shoot over 50 percent from two.
While Arkansas is capable of hitting the three, they have not done so consistently and shoot one of the worst marks in the country (32.1%). Furthermore, The Razorbacks have only made more than eight threes once this season.
For these reasons, Kentucky will need to go under most screens - unless it is Davonte Davis - and stay in between their man and the basket, something they struggled to do in their first matchup. This will limit Arkansas’ main source of offense, if they have a season-best shooting night, that’s something you live with.
Win the Rebounding Battle
One of Kentucky’s best strengths has been rebounding. The Wildcats have been outrebounded by their opponent only three times this season, but all resulted in losses.
While winning the rebounding battle doesn’t guarantee a win, it has been a big factor in Kentucky’s success, especially in offensive rebounding and second-chance points. Since their turnaround with the win at Tennessee, the Wildcats have outrebounded their opponent by nearly 10 rebounds per game (9.5).
In their earlier matchup, the Wildcats actually outrebounded Arkansas 31-26. However, if you look deeper, most of those rebounds came in the first half where Kentucky had a 16-10 advantage and the scoreboard displayed a close game, 41-40. In the second half, Kentucky was outrebounded 16-15, which isn’t terrible, but they were limited to just five second-chance points, and Arkansas outscored Kentucky 47-33.
To give themselves a shot to win, Kentucky must win the rebounding battle, but they also need to convert on their second-chance opportunities, especially if they shoot as badly as they did against Vanderbilt.
One of the areas where Arkansas succeeded most in their first matchup against Kentucky is in their transition offense. One reason for this is their aforementioned athleticism, reminiscent of some of Kentucky teams in the past.
With that said, 15 turnovers aren’t ideal, which is how many Kentucky committed in their first matchup. These turnovers led to a good portion of their 20 fastbreak points. Therefore, taking care of the ball and taking good shots would be Kentucky’s best ‘defense’.
The Wildcats will need to do their best to sprint back on every possession, which may be difficult given Kentucky’s depth concerns.
Kentucky Wildcats (20-10) vs. Arkansas Razorbacks (19-11)
Time/Date: 2:00 pm ET on Saturday, March 4th, 2023
Location: Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
TV Channel: CBS
Online Stream: CBSSports Online
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: Check local listings.
Odds: DraftKings Sportsbook Arkansas -5.5. ESPN’s matchup predictor was the Wildcats an underdog, giving them just a 30.7 % chance. However, Bart Torvik’s are similar, giving Kentucky just a 28% chance, while KenPom is at 34%.