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Arkansas vs Kentucky Basketball Preview, Plus Tennessee Recap

The schedule now sets up for a nice run in SEC play. First, the Hogs have to survive a trip to Lexington.

NCAA Basketball: Sam Houston State at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. If the Hogs can survive their third straight game against a top-60 RPI opponent, then there will be smooth sailing for a while. After Kentucky, seven of the next eight games are against teams outside the RPI top 60.

The Razorbacks did themselves a big favor in an 82-78 win over Tennessee in Knoxville. The win avoids an otherwise-likely 0-3 start to SEC play, which would not have been a good look for Mike Anderson (49-41 in SEC play in six seasons). This win guarantees that fan interest in the program won’t wane, and sets the Hogs up nicely for an NCAA Tournament run. By the end of the day on February 4th, the Hogs look set to have an overall record of 18-5 (7-3 SEC), or something close to that.

But first, Kentucky. The 6th-ranked Wildcats present what actually amounts to a fairly meaningless game: in fact, by just playing the game, Kentucky (#4 RPI) is boosting Arkansas’ RPI by enough to cancel out a loss. So it’s a free shot for the Hogs.

Before we preview that game, let’s look back at the Tennessee win.

Recapping Tennessee

Arkansas had an EPR of under 1.0 for the second straight game, which is somewhat concerning. This time, the Hogs balanced it out with a fantastic shooting effort.

One note: I’ve opted to replace Effective Field Goal % with a very similar stat: True Shooting %. TS% is EFG% with just one addition: free throws (attempts and makes) each count as half a shot, which is reflective of their value (1 point, while field goals are 2 points).

As an example, consider the following scenario. A player does all of the following:

  • 4 of 10 from the field
  • 2 of 4 from beyond the arc
  • 5 of 6 from the free throw line

That adds up to 15 points. The player was 40% from the field and 83% from the line. His true shooting percentage is 57.5%. Here’s how:

I decided to switch to this calculation when trying to evaluate Daryl Macon’s game. He only made 1 of 6 field goals, but EFG% couldn’t calculate that he made 12 of 13 free throws, so it was undervaluing his production.

Again, the Hogs’ interior got blasted, and for the second straight game, an opponent’s “4” (power forward) had a huge game. Not a good sign. Thankfully, Hannahs, Macon, Beard, and Barford played well enough to win, but the Hogs really need Moses Kingsley to start playing like he did last year.

Previewing Kentucky

The Wildcats are the easy SEC favorite, and it’s hard to find a conference team that can challenge them on a neutral floor. They probably won’t survive conference play unbeaten — road games are a thing — but a 16-2 or 15-3 conference record seems likely. For the Hogs, who would love a 12-6 conference record, keeping this game fairly close in Rupp Arena would be a good sign.

When the Hogs have the rock

Surprisingly, Kentucky has very few huge advantages. However, Arkansas is set up to go ice cold on the road against this defense, which is a bad sign. Offensive rebounding, which didn’t come through against Tennessee or Florida, is Arkansas’ best hope.

When the Cats have the rock

Kentucky isn’t an elite shooting team, especially from beyond the arc. They rarely turn the ball over and do a great job of running down their own misses. They get to the rim as good as any team in the country. Arkansas’ interior defense is coming off two bad games to open SEC play, so this is very concerning.

Starting lineups

Two observations about Kentucky’s starting lineup:

  • The Cats aren’t as big as they have been. Just a couple years ago, when the Harrison twins were patrolling UK’s backcourt, John Calipari didn’t have a starter shorter than 6-foot-6. Now he has three. In fact, the Cats starting five is the exact same height as Arkansas’ in total inches.
  • The Cats aren’t as deep as they have been. Fox, the point guard, plays 30 minutes a game. Only eight guys average at least 10 minutes per game (Arkansas has 10). Scoring is also concentrated between Fox, Briscoe, and Business Decision in the backcourt, and Adebayo up front.

If anyone is set to have a huge game against the Hogs, I would think it would be Adebayo. Good forwards have been a problem for the Razorbacks, who struggle to match up at the 4 position. Kingsley has also disappointed slightly, but he’s still having a decent year on defense. And, obviously, Lepanto’s Lost Boy seems like a candidate to have a big game, but that’s true for him every night.

Overall, I don’t think Arkansas has many good options to win. Mike Anderson will want his team to run — I wouldn’t want him to coach ‘em any other way — but Kentucky is probably better at playing fast than Arkansas is. Arkansas’ speed won’t throw these young players off, especially not in Lexington.

Key to the game

Three-point shooting. If Arkansas keeps this game close, it’s probably because some guys get hot from downtown. Arkansas attempts 3’s at one of the lowest rates in the country, but driving to the basket won’t work as well against this defense, even if it is a bit smaller than the terrifying Kentucky squad of two years ago. I’d like to see the Hogs make Kentucky work for this one by knocking down long balls.