Arkansas Fight: It's really a shame Arkansas and Kentucky don't play twice each season. But finally, at the tail end of league play, we'll get to see what people have dubbed the SEC's Game of the Year. How big of a game is this for Kentucky fans and the Wildcats?
A Sea of Blue: It's pretty meaningless as far as their likely seeding in the tournament is concerned, assuming it's the only game they lose from here on out. But Kentucky is now on a march to history and I think they see that as we come down to the end of the season. They will be ready for this game, and are aware of how challenging it will be. Arkansas cannot sneak up on Kentucky this season after sweeping them last year.
I think this would be a much bigger deal if it were in Fayetteville, because I think that Kentucky would be in a much weaker position. But this UK team, in Rupp Arena, is a very tough out.
AF: Willie Cauley-Stein and Bobby Portis were both named to the Wooden Award Late Season Top 20 earlier this month. That matchup is sure to be a fun one, but what other head-to-head should fans keep an eye on Saturday?
ASoB: I think the Michael Qualls-Trey Lyles matchup will be an interesting one. Qualls had some big moments against the defensively-challenged James Young last season, but this year it's a lot different. Lyles is much taller, but not as athletic as Qualls. Still, his size is going to present a major challenge, and Lyles is rounding into serious post-season form.
I think the most interesting matchup on the floor outside of WCS-Portis will be whoever happens to be guarding Qualls. Rashad Madden is also a tough matchup for the twins, so that will be a good one to watch. I couldn't say which of them will guard him -- probably Aaron, he's a better defender than Andrew.
AF: Watching the Cats roll over team after team in such dominating fashion this season has been impressive. But if they have a weakness Arkansas could exploit what would it be?
ASoB: Kentucky's biggest weakness, if you can call it that, is their defensive rebounding. After much film study, I have determined that to be largely caused by going for shot blocks. When the weak side defender rotates over for the block, UK has been unable to block out his man, leaving him available for the rebound if the block is not made.
Kentucky has also occasionally done a poor job of guarding straight-line drives and the 3-point line, but those are game-to-game things that don't really qualify as "weaknesses."
AF: Does Arkansas owning a three-game win streak over Kentucky worry fans at all?
ASoB: No. We don't like for that to happen, but honestly, our focus is on winning the NCAA Tournament. Even if Arkansas defeats UK tomorrow, the only angst will be in the context of retaining a #1 seed. This is a big game between two great programs, but in the big scheme of things, it has no meaningful consequences unless UK goes on a near-zero probability losing streak.
There was a time when Arkansas and Kentucky were genuine rivals. This game, and I say this with a ton of respect and regret for the loss of that rivalry, just won't renew it yet -- the consequences just aren't there. Now, if the Razorbacks were to win this one and knock UK off for the SEC championship, that might get the seeds of a rivalry renewal planted -- knocking UK off five straight times is genuinely significant in a historical context. But absent that, we need a few more years of fighting over SEC supremacy to return to the halcyon days of the 1990's.
On the subject of rivalries, we don't really consider Florida much of a rival no matter what the SEC's corporate money-grubbers say, even though they swept us last season and took the SEC Tournament from Kentucky. Back when the "04's" were playing for the Gators, they were very successful, but Kentucky was not very good and it isn't a rivalry when one of the two teams is uncompetitive. Developing a rivalry requires several consecutive years of close, consequential games and national success. Now, if the Gators had brought it again this season, we might be on the road to a rivalry. Alas, they did not.
Tennessee is our only true rival in SEC basketball even in their current depleted condition, and they earned that by being far and away the most successful team against the Wildcats over more than a century of history. Temporary rivalries come and go, but permanent rivalries are built over decades of blood, sweat and tears.
AF: How do you see the game playing out?
ASoB: I think it will be well-contested. Arkansas' press is bound to cause Kentucky some problems, but Arkansas is a poor defensive rebounding team and they will be at a significant size disadvantage inside. The Razorbacks are not a great half-court defensive team, and when UK gets into the half court, Arkansas is going to struggle to keep them out of the lane and out of the post.
I think, in the end, Kentucky wears down the Hogs and wins this one by high single-digits. It will probably be nip-and-tuck for a long time, but this UK team has plenty of close-game experience and knows how to win, unlike last year's team.
Let's say UK 80-72.