By Kevin McPherson
Arkansas played its most complete game while picking up arguably its best win of the season on Tuesday in a matchup of dueling NCAA Tournament Bubble teams as the Razorbacks emerged from Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., with an 88-73 statement victory over the host Kentucky Wildcats while securing their second consecutive road win as well as their second Quad-1 win of the season.
Arkansas methodically stretched a 1-point halftime lead into a 16-point advantage down the stretch of the second half with steady doses of stingy defense (inside and out) and an attacking offense (both in halfcourt and transition). The Razorbacks gravitated to the paint and the rim to shoot lights-out offensively (18-of-25 field goals in the second half for 72.0% as part of an overall 32-of-51 effort from the field for 62.7%, which included 4-of-9 shooting from 3 for 44.4%, and 20-of-24 free throws for 83.3%). They were also successful defensively shutting down the reigning National and SEC Player of the Year in Kentucky’s 6-9 big man Oscar Tshiebwe, who averaged 15.9 points and 13.6 rebounds coming in but finished with only 7 points and 7 rebounds on Tuesday.
The Hogs dominated the interior with a runaway 46-28 advantage in points-in-the-paint. They were minus-8 on the offensive glass (14-6) but once again stayed close in second-chance-points at only minus-2 (13-11). The Razorbacks gobbled up 10 steals and had 7 blocks in the game, feeding a plus-4 edge in turnovers (15-11), a plus-13 advantage in points-off-turnovers (23-10), and a plus-10 edge in fastbreak scoring (20-10).
Junior guard Ricky Council IV led the Hogs with 20 points (5-of-9 field goals, including 2-of-3 from 3, and 8-of-10 free throws) to go with 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and 1 turnover in 35 minutes. Freshman guard Anthony Black had 19 points (8-of-15 field goals and 3-of-4 free throws), 5 assists, 5 steals, 4 rebounds, and 6 turnovers in 38 minutes. Junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis had 15 points (6-of-11 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 2-of-3 free throws), a game-high 7 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers in 39 minutes. Senior center Makhel Mitchell had 15 points (7-of-9 field goals and 1-of-1 free throw), 5 blocks, and 4 rebounds in 29 minutes. Freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh had 13 points (4-of-4 field goals, including 1-of-1 from 3, and 4-of-4 free throws), 1 rebound, and 1 block in 22 minutes off the bench.
Arkansas (17-7, 6-5 SEC) has won five consecutive league games — including back-to-back road wins over Kentucky and South Carolina in the past three days that stand as the team’s first road wins of the season — while moving above .500 in the SEC standings for the first time in 2022-23. The Hogs improved to 2-5 in road games as part of an overall 6-6 mark in games played away from their home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville (the team is 11-1 at home).
It’s a white-hot 2-0 start to February for an Arkansas program that has lost only one game in its last 16 February tilts going back to the ’20-21 campaign. That February record includes three consecutive wins over Kentucky (’20-21, ’21-22, and now ’22-23), marking Arkansas’ first-ever three-game winning streak in the series that includes two road wins against Kentucky (the back-to-back road wins at Rupp also stand as a program first). The Hogs won three consecutive games once before in the series (spanning ’12-13 and ’13-14), but with two of those wins coming at home.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman picked up his 200th win as a Division 1 head coach, and it was his 90th win as Head Hog.
“We’re playing really good basketball at the right time,” Musselman said. “I think we’re a team that continues to improve. I’ve seen some great growth defensively the last two games. Some crucial stops at crucial moments in the game. So just really, really proud of how the team has continued to evolve and continued to improve.”
Musselman talked more about his team’s excellence on both sides of the ball.
“I thought defensively that we got much better in the second half,” he said. “Offensively it’s a team that’s gaining more confidence. We did a really, really good job moving the basketball tonight and kind of shifting the defense. But defensively, our interior defense was really good. I thought we did a good job on 34, Oscar Tshiebwe. I thought both Mitchells gave us great physicality inside. And then our guard play to start the second half, with Anthony Black, his steals were extremely important.
“Obviously, we have not been turning people over as much as we would like. But tonight that changed. Kentucky’s done a great job of playing with pace and getting out and scoring on the break, and tonight I thought it was our best transition offense that we’ve had all year.”
Kentucky (16-8, 7-4 SEC) had its six-game winning streak snapped as the ‘Cats lost on their homecourt for the third time this season. Freshman guard Cason Wallace led the ‘Cats with 24 points while freshman wing Chris Livingston finished with 13 points, veteran forward Justin Toppin had 11 points and 8 rebounds, aned senior transfer guard Antonio Reeves had 11 points off the bench.
The Wildcats did win the rebounding battle (31-26), including the aforementioned plus-8 edge in offensive rebounds (14-6) for only a plus-2 advantage in second-chance-points (13-11). The ‘Cats finished plus-3 in bench scoring (18-15).
The two teams will meet again as Arkansas will play host in the regular-season finale on Saturday, March 4, at BWA.
The win over the Wildcats (NET No. 32) counts as a Quad-1 result. Based on the current NCAA NET rankings, Arkansas (NET No. 28) is now 2-5 in Q1 games that factor into its postseason resume (a win at Kentucky, a win over San Diego State in a neutral-site game, and losses to Baylor on the road, Missouri on the road, Alabama at home, Auburn on the road, and Creighton at a neutral site). The Hogs are 4-1 in Q2 games (home wins over Texas A&M and Missouri, a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home win over Bradley, and a road loss to Vanderbilt), and they are 11-1 in Q3/4 games.
Coming into Tuesday college basketball games, Arkansas and Kentucky were projected as the last two teams to receive byes in the NCAAT as 11-seeds by ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi.
Arkansas improved to 14-33 all-time against Kentucky, including 5-12 at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Musselman improved to 3-1 as Head Hog coaching against Kentucky and Wildcats head coach John Calipari. He’s 90-35 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 42-27 record against SEC teams and a 6-2 mark spanning the last two NCAA Tournaments that culminated in back-to-back Elite Eight runs and back-to-back final national Top 10 rankings.
Next up for the Hoop Hogs is a return home for an SEC game against Mississippi State on Saturday at BWA (5 p.m. CT, ESPNU).
Musselman started the combination of Council, Black, Davis, Makhel Mitchell, and Makhi Mitchell for the third consecutive game.
Council scored on a bank shot, Walsh hit a floater followed by a Davis steal and floater in a 6-2 Arkansas spurt that put the Hogs ahead, 24-21. The game was tied at 26-all when Council made two free throws followed by a Davis 17-footer and a lob from Council to Black for a dunk in transition as the Razorbacks used the 6-0 run for their biggest lead of the first half, 32-26.
Kentucky would strike back with a 12-5 surge to go up 38-37, but a 4-2 Arkansas spurt on a Makhel Mitchell 8-footer in the paint followed by 2-of-2 technical-foul free throw shooting by Black sent the Hogs into the break leading 41-40.
Arkansas shot 14-of-26 from the field (53.8%) in the first half, including 3-of-6 from 3 (50%), and a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line. Meanwhile, Kentucky made 17-of-32 on field goals (53.1%), including only 1-of-6 from 3 (16.7%), and 5-of-7 at the foul line (71.4%).
Kentucky was plus-6 on the glass (16-10) in the first 20 minutes, including plus-4 on offensive rebounds (6-2) for a plus-3 edge in second-chance-points (8-5). The Hogs won the first-half turnover battle (6-4) for a plus-2 edge in points-off-turnovers (7-5). Each team had 18 points in the paint, but the ‘Cats were plus-5 in fastbreak points (7-2).
Davis led Arkansas with 9 first-half points.