By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas vs. Kentucky in February a season ago was about national prestige between two ranked teams jostling for eventual NCAA Tournament upper-echelon seeding superiority, but on Tuesday when the Razorbacks and Wildcats clash they do so facing the cold, hard truth that they’re both positioned uncomfortably on the ephemeral NCAAT Bubble coming down the stretch of the regular season.

Their postseason resumes are so anemically symmetric that ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has them as the third (Kentucky) and fourth (Arkansas) teams projected among the last four teams to receive an NCAAT bye, which is to say they’d be the two 11-seeds that would presumably avoid the First Four play-in games that will determine the two other 11-seeds.

That’s how dicey things are for the Hogs and ‘Cats, at least for now.

Arkansas (16-7, 5-5 SEC, NCAA NET No. 28) is coming off winning its first road game of the season, 65-63, against league bottom-dweller South Carolina on Saturday. The Razorbacks have won four consecutive league games to get to .500 in the SEC standings, but they’re only 1-5 on the road. The Hogs are 14-1 in February games going back to the 2020-21 season.

Kentucky (16-7, 7-3 SEC, NCAA NET No. 32) has won six consecutive league games, including a 72-67 home win over Florida on Saturday. The Wildcats have lost twice at home this season — 71-68 against South Carolina on Jan. 10 and 77-68 against then-No. 9 Kansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Jan. 28.                                                   

The Hogs and Wildcats will square off at 8 p.m. CT on Tuesday (ESPN) at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. In a rare home-and-away opportunity between the two schools, Arkansas will host Kentucky at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Saturday, March 4, in the regular-season finale.

In Tuesday’s matchup, Arkansas has a chance to win its third consecutive game against Kentucky including back-to-back road wins at Rupp, which would be a progam first. The Razorbacks won their last meeting at Rupp — an 81-80 nailbiter on Feb. 9, 2021, two seasons ago — which was followed by Arkansas’ narrow 75-73 home win at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Feb. 26 last season when the Hogs were ranked 18th and the ‘Cats 6th in the nation.

Junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis continues to be the front man in the Hogs’ current surge. As the team’s best on-ball defender, Davis has increased his offensive production and efficiency by averaging 16.3 points while shooting a collective 20-of-45 from 3 (44.4%) spanning the Hogs’ last eight games. His 4-of-10 three-point shooting against South Carolina accounted for all of the team’s makes from distance.

Junior guard and the team’s leading scorer Ricky Council IV was one of four double-figures scorers (10 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists) for Arkansas in the win over South Carolina, as was freshman guard Anthony Black (13 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks). Both players made driving baskets late in the game to give the Hogs one-point leads after Carolina scores on back-to-back offensive possessions had each put the Gamecocks in the lead by one point. Freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh led the Hogs with 10 rebounds to go with 4 points while senior forward Jalen Graham led the team in scoring with 16 points (8-of-10 field goals) to go with 2 rebounds and 3 turnovers in 21 minutes. The two reserves accounted for all of the points in the Hogs’ 20-4 bench scoring advantage over the Gamecocks.

Big men twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell combined for only 7 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 block after combining for a triple-double — 15 points, 18 rebounds, 10 blocks, and 2 steals — in the Hogs’ previous win over Texas A&M, 81-70, on Jan. 31.

During a too-close-for-comfort second half against USC, Arkansas survived a defensive letdown combined with a sputtering offense against the Gamecocks’ 1-3-1 zone defense. The Hogs yielded 50% field goal shooting, including 45.5% from 3, to Carolina in the final 20 minutes as the Gamecocks finished 24-of-58 for the game (41.4%), including 7-of-19 from 3 (36.8%). Conversely on offense, the Hogs shot poorly in the second half as they abandoned ball-movement via the pass while dribbling down the shot clock on the perimeter which led to an abundance of ill-advised, half-hearted three-point shot attempts. Arkansas shot 37.9% from the field in the final half, including 2-of-10 from 3 for 20%. For the game, the Hogs made 26-of-55 field goals (47.3%), including 4-of-15 from 3 (26.7%).

For the first time on the road in over a month, the Razorbacks were not blown out by a double-digit margin in free throw attempts in the second half. Arkansas was 9-of-13 at the foul line (69.2%) for the game, including 5-of-8 in the second half, while Carolina was 8-of-14 on freebies (57.1%) for the game, including 3-of-6 in the second half.

Arkansas was plus-4 in points-in-the-paint (38-34) while finishing minus-1 in turnovers (11-10), minus-6 in points-off-turnovers (14-8), minus-2 in rebounds (34-32), and minus-2 in second-chance-points (12-10). Each team scored 8 fastbreak points.

Defensively, the Hogs had been stout in their last three-and-a-half outings while holding teams to low field-goal shooting percentages: LSU 25.9%, Baylor 33.9%, Texas A&M 34.2%, and South Carolina (33.3% IN THE FIRST HALF). The team’s second-half defensive lapse against South Carolina — again, the Hogs yeilded 50% field goal shooting, including 45.5% from 3, in the final 20 minutes against efficiency-challenged USC — was trumped only by the fact that Arkansas found a way to win for the first time on the road.

Defensive rebounding, specifically keeping two strong offensive rebounding teams in Texas A&M and South Carolina in check in the last two outings, was also an issue for Arkansas. The Hogs gave up a combined 37 offensive rebounds to those teams and were a collective minus-12 on the offensive glass, although that only translated to a combined minus-6 in second-chance-points against the Aggies and Gamecocks. It’s a key point given how good Kentucky is pounding the offensive glass (more on that down the page).

Things had gotten better on the offensive end of late for the Razorbacks as well with 50% or better shooting from the field in its last two-and-a-half games before the aforementioned second-half backslide against Carolina on Saturday. As stated above, Arkansas’ passing and attack mentality subsided in favor of passive over-dribbling that led to too many lakcluster launches from three-point territory.

Excessive turnovers and fouling remain the two biggest weaknesses of the team, although those were not at issue against the Gamecocks.

“I hope the players enjoy the win tonight,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said on Saturday in his post-game press conference. “Hopefully we’ll get back safely, but certainly the preparation for Kentucky will begin immediately upon ending this press conference. We’ll start looking at their stats.”

Arkansas is 13-33 all-time against Kentucky, which includes a 4-12 record in Lexington. The Hogs have won 2 of their last 5 games played at Rupp going back to the ’13-14 season, which was also the only time Arkansas swept a home-and-away season series against Kentucky.

After playing at Kentucky on Tuesday, Arkansas returns home to play Mississippi State on Saturday (5 p.m. CT, ESPNU).

Muss musings

On playing back-to-back road games within three days: “Well, we won this game (against South Carolina) so it makes it a little bit easier to prepare, but obviously a very, very quick turnaround. Much of our preparation will be Monday, which is also a travel day. But Tuesday is a late game, so we will take advantage of a late game to try to get some mini film sessions in the day of the game. That will be extremely important as we lose a prep day basically. It’s tough. We’ve still got to travel back tonight (Saturday night), and then we’ve got to travel on the day before the game. When you have back-to-back road games with this short turnaround, it eats up a little bit of prep time. But we’ll start tonight. As soon as I get on the plane, I’ll start diving into Kentucky, and we’ll start our preparation.”

On road rage (?): “Road rage was our game theme coming into (the South Carolina game). We tried to do something to loosen the mood. I probably should have talked about it at halftime. I didn’t. But I thought it helped us get off to a good start as we had a little bit of fun with it pregame. I just kind of talked about what happens when you’re in a traffic jam, and what you’ve got to do? You’ve gotta go through, around, over, whatever. Anyway, we just tried to loosen the mood a little bit.”

On Arkansas’ bench production and roles: “I think guys are still developing roles. That’s kind of where our team has been … I’m not sure how we will start going into the Kentucky game. We’ll meet as a staff and discuss that. I think we’ve settled into you know, a rotation of seven right now, and then who that eighth guy becomes will kind of vary based on how the game unfolds and based on how matchups are, and quite frankly, based on practice habits and so on.”

Scouting the Kentucky Wildcats

Like the Razorbacks, Kentucky entered ’22-23 with national top 10 rankings, but with the added caveat of being the preseason pick to win the SEC title. With the return of National and SEC Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe, other key contributors from last season, and another top-shelf recruiting class, the Wildcats shockingly stumbled through their first 16 games with a 10-6 record, including a 1-3 start in league play.

But the ‘Cats’ current six-game league winning streak is in line with preseason expectations, and senior 6-9 forward Tshiebwe — averaging 15.9 points and 13.6 rebounds on the season — had a monster 37-point, 24-rebound game in a win over Georgia during that stretch as a reminder of how dominant he can be on any given night.

Senior 6-5 guard and Illinois State transfer Antonio Reeves averages 13.0 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 24.5 minutes per game while shooting 41.3% from 3 and 83.0% on free throws. Strong and bouncy senior 6-9 forward Jacob Toppin averages 11.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.1 assists in 29.4 minutes per game while shooting 45.4% from the field and 66.2% from the free throw line.

Freshman 6-4 guard Cason Wallace averages 11.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.0 steals in 30.8 minutes per game while shooting 47.8% from the field, including 41.1% from 3, and 67.5% from the free throw line. Senior 5-9 guard Sahvir Wheeler and senior 6-3 guard CJ Fredrick each averages 7.7 points per game, with Wheeler leading the team with 5.6 assists per outing and Fredrick being a 90.5% free throw shooter. Freshman 6-6 forward Chris Livingston averages 5.3 points and 2.9 rebounds per game.

Kentucky ranks No. 33 in Division 1 according to ratings (No. 19 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and No. 69 in adjusted defensive efficiency).

The Wildcats consistently go with a tight 7-man rotation with 3-4 reserves on hand for spot-duty, similar to Arkansas’ player rotation.

Offensively, the Wildcats are collectively solid with ball-handling and facilitating (16.0 assists ranks 26th in Division 1 against only 11.3 assists which also ranks as a top 50 category for the team). Kentucky ranks 11th nationally in offensive rebounding (13.3 per game) and 49th in three-point shooting percentage (36.8%) on just 6.9 triple makes per game.

Defensively, Kentucky is less impressive but still repsectable, holding teams to 42.6% field goal shooting while committing only 15.3 fouls per game and yielding only 15.5 free throw attempts per game. The ‘Cats collect only 6.7 steals per game while forcing 12.0 turnovers per outing. There is no dominant rim-protector as the team blocks 4.1 shot per game to rank 69th in D1.

Arkansas’ front-and-center challenges will be to not get crushed on Kentucky’s offensive glass while staying competitive in turnovers, free throws, points-in-the-paint, and transition scoring.

“Obviously we’ve got to box out Tshiebwe,” Musselman said. “They have a great freshman in Wallace, who does a great job on both sides of the ball. One of the best defenders in the country. CJ Fredrick’s the guy that can really rope threes. He stretches the defense out. Wheeler for them at the point guard spot’s got great speed, does an excellent job getting their team in their offense. And then Toppin is a guy that has a really good mid-range pull-up game. He’s an excellent defender, excellent offensive rebounder, kind of flies in from the weak side on the offensive board. So a lot of things that we’ve got to get ready for in regards to Kentucky.

“The biggest thing is he (Tshiebwe) plays volleyball with offensive rebounds. He’s so quick off his feet. He draws fouls around the rim. All those things. Defensively, he’s got good anticipation. He’s a high, high steal player for his position. He blocks shots at the defensive end. He’s just tenacious. You know, he’s relentless on the glass … Reeves is a great scorer. He’s obviously a transfer out of the portal, can really shoot the ball. You’ve got to ID him as he crosses half court. He’s a really good transition 3-ball shooter. He and Fredrick both stretch the defense out because of their ability to score the basketball. He can get really hot. Streaky shooter, a guy that was a focal point offensively at his prior university and a go-to guy prior to coming to Kentucky. Now he’s kind of evolved into a guy that they need points from as well. So obviously guarding Reeves will be extremely important as well.”

Hoop Hogs national and SEC honors

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.

Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., 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).

The previous week, 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).

The week before that, 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.

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 this season that the Hogs were unranked.

As of Tuesday, Feb. 7, the Razorbacks ranked No. 28 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 1-5 record in Quad-1 games — a neutral-site win over San Diego State, a neutral-site loss against Creighton, a road loss against Auburn, a home loss against Alabama, and a road loss against Missouri; b) a 4-1 record in Q2 games — a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home win over Bradley, a home win over Missouri, a home win over Texas A&M, 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 Tennessee and No. 3 Alabama. The upcoming road game against NET No. 32 Kentucky on Tuesday will count as a Q1 result.

Looking at three other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 21 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 29 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 27 according to ratings (includes No. 13 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 66 in adjusted offensive efficiency).

Arkansas was projected as a No. 11 seed — fourth in the pecking order of four teams to receive the last four byes (i.e. not playing in the First Four play-in games) — in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.