The Stage Is Set
Kentucky day will always be one of the biggest days on the Razorback basketball calendar. For people like me, who came of age as a Razorback fan during Nolan Richardson's heyday in the early 90's, this game remains one of the biggest Hog days of the year regardless of sport.
The hype is already there just from the names of the two programs. Throw in that John Calipari was probably Arkansas' Villain of the Year in 2015 and it just adds to the intensity. You might recall that one of Kentucky's best teams blew out the Hogs in Rupp last year and easily beat Arkansas again in an SEC Championship Game that became a little bloody, and left Ashley Judd basically threatening to have the entire state arrested. Then the year ended, of course, with prized Arkansas recruit Malik Monk signing with the Wildcats instead of the Razorbacks.
So I'm a bit excited for Thursday night. Bud Walton Arena hasn't exactly been its most electric this season, but the heat should be there for this game.
Is Arkansas Actually the Favorite?
The Razorbacks opened as a 1.5-point favorite, but apparently, enough money quickly came in on Kentucky that the line has moved and now the Wildcats are a 2-point favorite. KenPom gives Arkansas a 57% chance of winning.
There are a few reasons neither team is a clear favorite. The Wildcats haven't quite lived up to their lofty expectations this season, beginning SEC play 4-2. They've only won a single true road game this season, at Alabama. They've lost road games to UCLA, LSU, and even at Auburn just last Saturday. They also lost a neutral site game to Ohio State. None of those teams are elite this year. Bud Walton Arena typically isn't the place teams go to turn their road fortunes around.
And as will likely be repeated several times throughout the day: Kentucky has lost each time they've visited Fayetteville since John Calipari took over - losing in 2011 (Pel!), 2013, and 2014. The Cats haven't won in the Bud since Jodie Meeks went for 45 points in 2009. Calipari's lone win in Fayetteville came with Memphis in 2003 when the Hogs were at an all-time low in the aftermath of the Nolan fiasco.
Arkansas, as we know, has lost just once in Bud Walton this year, to Akron back in mid-November the same day Monk signed with Kentucky. The Razorbacks have played well at home ever since, shooting better than 50% in nearly every game.
Enough With History, What About Matchups?
Kentucky's best wins have been a victory over Louisville in Rupp and a neutral site win over Duke in November, so the Wildcats do have talent and are certainly capable of playing with the best - but they're not nearly the dominant team they were last year.
There are a few reasons for that. A big part of it is the bigs. They don't have Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein dominating the frontcourt this year, and certainly don't have backups like Trey Lyles and Dakari Johnson. All four of those players were at least 6'10" with two listed at 7 feet. This year, Kentucky only has one such player playing significant minutes, 5-star freshman Skal Labissiere, but Labissiere has not lived up to the hype as of yet, averaging just 7.7 points per game.
That is hopefully good news for Moses Kingsley, who had an off game offensively against LSU and could have a nice rebound game against the Cats' front line. But his rebounding could be the most important. The Wildcats are the best offensive rebounding team in the league. Arkansas can't give up too many easy putbacks, which is obviously what doomed them in the last seconds vs LSU.
Most of Kentucky's damage this year comes from their guard play. Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, and Isaiah Briscoe are all talented guards. Ulis is an excellent point guard and Murray has the capability to get hot and score in bunches. Murray is the best three point shooter, but most of their work comes from inside the arc. Anthlon Bell and Dusty Hannahs will have a hard time guarding them on the perimeter. Help defense will be big for the Razorbacks.
Arkansas' biggest advantage, as usual, is three point shooting. The Razorbacks lead the league in this department, and Kentucky hasn't been the best at defending it, allowing SEC teams to make 37.4% against them. We'll see if Bell, Hannahs, and Beard can live up to the energy that will be in the building.
The Razorbacks have been really bad about putting opponents on the free throw line, but Kentucky is one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the league, making just 66% on the year coming into the game. Of course, LSU didn't make too many of their free throws and they survived it. But hopefully the Cats won't take 3x as many free throws as the Hogs.
I really think Arkansas has a great chance to win this game. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Hogs are able to take advantage of the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena to shoot well and keep the crowd into it.
Other than last season, Calipari's Kentucky teams have skewed really young by necessity, and this team is no different. They do have one senior in Alex Poythress and juniors in Marcus Lee and Derek Willis, but none of them have had success in Bud Walton to this point.
Arkansas' defense has really improved over the last month or so, and with such a long break since Saturday's game against LSU, I think the Hogs come out hot with the crowd and knock off Kentucky. Granted, I'm openly admitting this is what I want to happen, but I really do feel good about the game. Maybe it's more excited. Good and excited.
The Razorbacks need this game in more ways than one and they're playing well enough to get it done. It should be a fun one.