FAYETTEVILLE - If these current Razorbacks are ever to beat the Kentucky team always beating them, tonight’s time seems ripe.
Arkansas hasn’t beaten John Calipari’s Wildcats since achieving a home and home SEC sweep in 2014, the season before Razorbacks 4-year seniors Anton Beard and Trey Thompson arrived in Fayetteville as graduates of North Little Rock High and Forrest City High.
But for tonight’s ESPN televised 8 o’clock tip-off at an 18,000-plus sold-out Walton Arena, Coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks, 19-8 overall and at 8-6 in a 4-way tie for third in the SEC with Florida, Alabama and Missouri, are on a roll winning four consecutively including a convincing 94-75 thumping last Saturday at Walton over Texas A&M, the SEC preseason favorite and an 80-66 victor over Arkansas on Jan. 30 in College Station, Texas.
Meanwhile Kentucky, 18-9, 7-7, finally just stopped the bleeding of a 4-game SEC skid by beating Alabama, 81-71 last Saturday in Lexington, Ky.
So after what amounted to losing two Kentucky home games to the Wildcats last season, one in Lexington and one at the SEC Tournament in Nashville whose proximity to Kentucky enticed an enormous Big Blue Kentucky crowd, this senior laden Arkansas team wields advantages over his young Wildcats tonight, Calipari implied.
“You know, it’s going to be a hard one,” Calipari said. “They’re starting four seniors. We’re starting five freshmen. Arkansas is playing as well as they’ve played all year. They only lost one home game.”
Arkansas played miserably when that 75-54 loss back on Jan. 10 marked the Razorbacks third consecutive loss.
Now the Razorbacks are on a roll and so is their 6-11 forward, Daniel Gafford of El Dorado. Gafford was named the SEC Freshman of the Week Monday after averaging 18.5 points and 6.0 rebounds last week in victories at Ole Miss and at Walton over Texas A&M.
“The young big kid is really gotten better in the last five games,” Calipari said. “He's playing his best basketball, which makes them a different type of team, even though they've got four seniors that are starting and are experienced. They're good. They're a really good basketball team.”
Anderson doesn’t back away that his Razorbacks have developed into a good team. And it’s become one, he said, because it’s developed more than the 3-man show of senior star guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, the top scoring duo in the SEC, and Gafford.
Point guard Beard has provided a steadying influence these last four games but the biggest difference seems to be sophomore guard C.J. Jones, freshman forward Gabe Osabuohien, and freshman guard Darious Hall impacting along with veteran big man Thompson off the bench.
“Our bench has been really good,” Anderson said. “You’re starting to get different people coming off that bench and giving you productivity.”
And rest for the regulars and intensity to the game when they sub in, Barford said.
“Early in the season they kind of struggled a little bit just to get the feel of the game an how fast college is,” Barford said. “But now with our bench I think we’ve got a whole team. Our bench is really good.”
All that sounds great for Arkansas, but Kentucky is still Kentucky, Anderson asserts and loaded with literally big McDonald’s High School All-Americans. Kentucky’s shortest starter is 6-5 working with a 6-6 fellow guard and a frontline standing 6-9, 6-9, 6-11 and a bench loaded with tall prep All-Americans.
“Kentucky comes in here as a real athletic team with length,” Anderson said, especially noting the presence of 6-9 Kevin Knox, leading the Wildcats averaging 15.1 points per game, and 6-6 guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, “a big guard and big key to their basketball team.”
Anderson cited Kentucky’s depth and its rebounders so instrumental in the Wildcats outrebounding, 44-27 the touted Alabama Crimson Tide awaiting the Razorbacks Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“We know Alabama is one of the better most athletic teams in the country,” Anderson said. “So that tells you about Kentucky.”
Turning around the rebounding in the A&M games, down 45-30 in the 80-66 loss at College Station and up, 45-33 in last Saturday’s 95-74 win at Walton was a big stat and rebounding will be a “big stat” in tonight’s outcome, Anderson said.
As for Kentucky’s freshman inexperience, Anderson said they’ve played enough and are too talented to be deemed freshmen anymore.
“This day and time it doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior,” Anderson said. “You’re a good basketball player.”