By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks have one more shot at adding a regular-season trophy win to their postseason resume when the 23rd-ranked Kentucky Wildcats invade Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Saturday.
Arkansas already has a solid Quad-1 and Quad-2 combined resume — a 3-8 record in Q1 games plus a 4-2 mark in Q2 games that help determine a team’s NCAAT viability — with only one bad loss (60-57 at LSU back in December that counts as a Q3 defeat), so the Hogs are in great shape to land an NCAA Tournament at-large bid for a third consecutive season.
Arkansas (19-11, 8-9 is tied for 8th place in the SEC, NCAA NET No. 16) is looking for its fourth consecutive 20-win season under fourth-year head coach Eric Musselman. The team is 13-2 this season in games played on its home court of BWA. The Hogs are looking for a home-and-away season sweep against the Wildcats after winning in dominant fashion, 88-73, in early February at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. The Razorbacks are coming off back-to-back road losses against No. 2 Alabama (86-83) and No. 12 Tennessee (75-57) as part of a 4-losses-in-6-games skid that began after their road win over the Wildcats.
Kentucky (20-10, 11-6 is tied for 3rd place in the SEC, NCAA NET No. 21) had won 4 of 5 games following that home loss to the Hogs, but the ‘Cats slipped against Vanderbilt, 68-66, on Wednesday in their last home game of the season. Kentucky is considered a lock for an NCAAT at-large bid.
The Hogs and Wildcats will square off at 1 p.m. CT on Saturday (CBS) at BWA. Kentucky leads the all-time series against Arkansas, 14-33, but the Hogs have won the last three matchups spanning the last three seasons. Arkansas has never beaten Kentucky in four consecutive meetings.
A victory over the ‘Cats would add a fourth Quad-1 win to Arkansas’ NCAAT resume while moving the Hogs back to .500 to wrap up league play at 9-9. The Razorbacks enter the contest in a three-way tie for 8th place in the SEC, and the best they can do seeding-wise in next week’s SEC Tournament is as an 8-seed with the worst-case scenario being a 10-seed. The Hogs are 4-8 against the top 10 SEC teams and 4-1 against the league’s bottom 4 teams. Whether as the 8-, 9-, or 10-seed, Arkansas will play in the SECT second round on Thursday, March 9.
In those back-to-back losses against ‘Bama (86-83) and Tennessee (75-57), Arkansas was decimated in the paint as the Tide (plus-14) and Vols (plus-24) held a dominant, collective 94-56 advantage in points-in-the-paint. Uncharacteristically, the Hogs’ frontliners often looked flat-footed, inactive, and lacking competitive fire in those two matchups when it came to the paint battles at both ends of the floor.
Defensively, the Hogs were shellacked in the second half against ‘Bama (the Tide shot 19-of-34 field goals for 55.9% in the final 20 minutes), and that carried over to both halves against Tennessee (the Vols shot 27-of-54 from the field for 50% for the game).
Offensively, the Hogs were good overall at ‘Bama but sputtered at times, and they were horn-to-horn anemic and turnover prone at Tennessee. In both games, Arkansas was not good at the free throw line (20-of-29 for 69.0% at ‘Bama, and 13-of-22 for 59.1% at Tennessee).
After hosting Kentucky on Saturday, Arkansas will have a second-round game on Thursday, March 9, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. The Hogs will need to win four games in four days to win the SECT championship and the league’s automotatic bid to the NCAAT.
On the his perspective of NCAA NET rankings and NCAAT Bracketology projections: “We talk to the team a little bit about it. I don’t think you can… You have to worry about the next game at hand. Obviously, the staff and (Anthony) Ruta did a really good job of the schedule that we had in non-conference. You handle your business the first part of the year, and that has a big impact once you get to the end of the season. And then our players did a great job of playing very, very, very well in non-conference and won some really good games against some very good competition. Like I said, Ruta did a really good job and the entire staff of looking at teams like Fordham and some of the other teams that have played really, really well in their conference. So, we feel good about that, then obviously our SEC schedule, I don’t have any metrics in front of me, but I’m assuming our SEC schedule was as tough as any team having played Alabama twice. This will be our second time obviously having played Kentucky. And having played A&M twice. So, in my opinion, again, without having everyone’s schedule in front, I know our non-conference schedule was very good. I know we took care of business. In the conference schedule, it’s not a balanced schedule. I’ve said it 100 times when I came into the league, it was a little eye-opening how the balance of the schedule can really affect your schedule. Up until this juncture of my coaching career any place I’ve ever been it has been a balanced schedule. It’s a balanced schedule in the NBA. You play everybody in the West a certain amount of times. You play everybody in the East once at home and once on the road. The Mountain West was balanced. So, with this particular team, we’ve played… You know, it’s a hard schedule. And it’s a very hard schedule to end the year. You play on a Saturday at Alabama. You lose a close game, a game that really came down to a possession or two. You fly home Sunday and then get on a plane Monday and go play Tennessee. So you’re playing the 2nd-ranked team and 12th-ranked team in back-to-back games. And now we have a ranked team in Kentucky coming in on Saturday. So, long answer to a short question.”
On senior forward Kamani Johnson, who will go through Senior Day on Saturday: “I think all that stuff happens after the year. With Kamani, he’s been a very important piece, especially this year because he and Devo were the only two that really knew what we had going on other than Lawson and Cade. Devo and Kamani’s voice on the practice floor certainly carried a lot of weight for this whole season. He continues to have a voice in our huddles and in-game situations and at halftime. He’s won us some games. You know, the game against San Diego State. Right now, that’s a game that was a really important win for us on a neutral floor. He came in and I would say his contribution in that particular game was as great a contribution as we’ve had from anybody in any one given game against a really good opponent not in our own building. All of us really appreciate (him). Really proud, too, that academically that he’s getting a degree. That was really important to Kamani and his mom. Just proud of how he’s conducted himself as a leader on our team.”
On player leadership: “We’d like more, some more player leadership. I certainly think that Nick is really competitive and is vocal. Anthony has tried to lead in his way. With both of them, they’re still freshmen. Those two guys in particular have tried to lead. Obviously Devo and Kamani have probably been the most consistent voices throughout the season and they have enough inner confidence to step up and say things internally. I think that’s an area we want to continue to grow in even though we only have 40 minutes of regular-season basketball to play. That’s another area to continue to grow in. I think those have been the guys that have tried to lead us in different ways at different times of the year.”
Scouting the Kentucky Wildcats and a look back to first UA-UK tilt in February
The Wildcats’ 4 most-recent wins after losing to the Hogs were impressive: 1) a 71-68 road win over Mississippi State; 2) a 66-54 home win over then-No. 10 Tennessee (the ‘Cats swept the home-and-away season series with the Vols); 3) an 82-74 road win over Florida; and 4) an 86-54 home win over Auburn.
Kentucky currently ranks No. 22 in Division 1 according to KenPom.com ratings (No. 16 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and No. 69 in adjusted defensive efficiency).
The Wildcats consistently rely on a 7-8 player rotation when healthy, but the absence of senior point guard Sahvir Wheeler (out since early February) and the current availability questions surrounding star freshman combo guard Cason Wallace — he left the game and did not return against Vanderbilt on Wednesday with a foot injury — could spell backcourt depth and production trouble for Kentucky against Arkansas on Saturday.
Reigning SEC / National Player of the Year and senior 6-9 forward Oscar Tshiebwe (16.5 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.0 block, 56.8% field goals, 72.5% free throws) is the team’s centerpiece star with the 6-4 Wallace (11.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.9 steals, 44.6% field goals, 35.6% three-point field goals, 76.2% free throws); senior 6-5 transfer guard Antonio Reeves (13.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, 40.8% three-point field goals, 77.5% free throws); senior 6-9 forward Jacob Toppin (12.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 46.3% field goals, 31.1% three-point field goals, 64.4% free throws); and senior 6-3 transfer guard CJ Fredrick (6.9 points, 1.5 assists, 33.0% three-point field goals, 90.9% free throws) rounding out the top five ‘Cat producers in the rotation.
The Wildcats rank 7th nationally in offensive rebounds (13.5 per game) while holding a per-game plus-5.0 advantage on the offensive glass. They rank 33rd nationally in assists (15.5) against only 11.5 turnovers per outing. The Wildcats are an efficient three-point shooting team (36.1% ranks 73rd in D1) but at 6.5 makes per game they are not a high-volume shooting team from distance.
In the aforementioned 88-73 win at Kentucky, 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 into that game but finished with only 7 points and 7 rebounds against the Hogs.
Arkansas dominated the interior with a runaway 46-28 advantage in points-in-the-paint. The Hogs were minus-8 on the offensive glass (14-6) but 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 Arkansas 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.
Wallace led the ‘Cats with 24 points while freshman wing Chris Livingston finished with 13 points. Toppin had 11 points and 8 rebounds, and Reeves had 11 points off the bench.
Musselman talked about multiple keys to the Hogs getting back on track in the paint trenches against Kentucky.
“No. 1, our guards have to do a good job keeping the ball in front of them,” Musselman said. “That means at the point guard, the off guard and the small forward. These two games were a little bit different, though, that we just played. Alabama, every team they play, they space out. You’ve either got to guard the three or guard the drive. That’s been an entire theme. If I pick up the phone and call one of their non-conference opponents, that would be a discussion that you would have with anybody that plays them, and quite frankly anybody that’s going to have to play them, whether it’s the SEC Tournament or NCAA Tournament. You’re going to have to decide. It’s really hard to take away both against a team that’s a top-three team in the country. So that is what it is. And then if you look at the way that Tennessee plays, they’re one of the best rebounding teams, so they’re going to have points in the paint.
“Tshiebwe, he’s an incredible offensive rebounder — maybe the best offensive rebounder that college basketball has seen in the last 10 years. You look at our blocked shots and how we have, for the duration of the season, been a team that’s done a great job of protecting the lane. We would have liked to have gotten better the last two games, so we’ve got to improve that area, certainly, against Kentucky.”
Arkansas is preparing as though Wallace will play.
“Well, our first prep for Kentucky’s going to be (Thursday),” Musselman said. “When we go down there, we know that Coach Cal said that they’re hopeful he’ll play at Arkansas. We know that Coach Calipari said there was no swelling. And we know that Coach Cal said that the X-rays came back and he was fine. So certainly preparation will be for No. 22, Wallace, to play, without a question.”
Hoop Hogs national and SEC honors
Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., has twice been named SEC Freshman of the week with two national FOW honors as well. He avgeraged 25.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.0 steal while shooting 48.6% from the field, including 63.6% from 3, and 77.8% at the free throw line as the Razorbacks split games against Georgia (Feb. 21) and Alabama (Feb. 25). Prior to that, Smith was named the USBWA National Freshman of the Week, the SEC Freshman of the Week, and Dick Vitale’s National Diaper Dandy in early December after leading the then-No. 9 Hoop Hogs in combined scoring (21.5 points per game) to go with 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.0 steal in the team’s wins over UNC-Greensboro (Dec. 6) and Oklahoma (Dec. 10).
Arkansas junior wing Ricky Council IV was one of 50 players named to the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) Oscar Robertson Trophy mid-season watch list that was released on Jan. 19. The honor is awarded in the postseason to recognize the national player of the year in college basketball.
Council was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 22.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.0 steals while shooting 71% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 100% at the free throw line to pace the Hoop Hogs in wins over Troy (Nov. 28) and San Jose State (Dec. 3).
Arkansas freshman guard Anthony Black was named SEC Co-Freshman of the Week after averaging 22.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.7 steals while shooting 55% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 86% at the free throw line in the Hoop Hogs’ 2-1 run / 3rd-place finish in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii (Nov. 21-23). Black led all scorers in the event and was named to the all tournament team.
On March 2, Arkansas freshman guard Derrian Ford was named to the SEC Men’s Basketball Community Service Team. As an education major, Ford has worked with the Extra Yard for Teachers. He’s also supported several children’s charities such as the First Tee Golf Event; the Children’s Safety Center, which empowers children to overcome abuse; the Yvonne Richardson Center Bike Giveaway, which gave away 100 bikes over two days; and the Miracles and Magic Radiothon for NWA Children’s Hospital, which helped kids and their families access to the best pediatric care.
How Razorbacks stack up in polls, NCAA NET, analytics, and bracketology
Arkansas has been out of both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll since Jan. 23, which at the time marked the first time of the 2022-23 season that the Hoop Hogs were unranked.
As of Friday, March 3, the Razorbacks ranked No. 16 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 3-8 record in Quad-1 games — a road win over Kentucky, a home win over Texas A&M, a neutral-site win over San Diego State, two losses to Alabama (home-and-away), a road loss against Tennessee, neutral-site loss against Creighton, a road loss against Auburn, a road loss against Baylor, a road loss against Missouri, and a road loss against Texas A&M; b) a 4-2 record in Q2 games — a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home win over Bradley, a home win over Missouri, a home win over Florida, a home loss against Mississippi State, and a road loss against Vanderbilt; and c) 11-1 record in Q3 and Q4 games (road loss against LSU currently counts as a Q3 defeat). The Hoop Hogs are 3rd among SEC teams in NET behind No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Tennessee. The upcoming home game against NET No. 21 Kentucky on Saturday will count as a Q1 result.
Looking at three other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 13 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 16 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 15 according to KenPom.com ratings (includes No. 11 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 53 in adjusted offensive efficiency).
Arkansas was projected as a No. 9 seed on Friday, March 3, in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.