CRAWFORD | The scout: Kentucky at Arkansas, TV, line and 3 thing - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | The scout: Kentucky at Arkansas, TV, line and 3 things to watch

Posted: Updated:
WDRB photo by Eric Crawford. WDRB photo by Eric Crawford.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Two years ago, with Kentucky suffering more Southeastern Conference losses than anyone expected and being left for dead by many, I cautioned “don’t shovel the dirt on them just yet.”

And in fact, the Wildcats did come around, upset Louisville in the NCAA Tournament and made it all the way to the title game before losing to Connecticut.

I know tax season is coming, but it’s still a bit too early to write off the Wildcats just yet. But going into Arkansas tonight, where John Calipari is 0-3 as Kentucky’s coach, with a team that has struggled away from Rupp Arena, the Wildcats (13-4, 3-2 SEC) face a test that could indicate which direction they want to go.

Unlike two years ago, the Wildcats don’t have a Julius Randle — or even a Dakari Johnson — they can put on the block and turn loose.

They have elite guard talent. And Calipari is trying to find someone who can complement it with good enough interior play to get things turned in the right direction. He has promised some changes, but hasn’t said what they will be.

“We’ve been on such a great run here that when you have a little peaks and valleys and you have a couple of valleys – I believe we’ve only lost four games so far – it’s somewhat unusual around here since we’ve been here, to be in January and have that,” assistant coach John Robic told the media on Wednesday. “There’s no need to panic. This has been a process, and it’s been a process that we’re trying to really get through. It’s still a work in progress, if that makes any sense at all. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of comparisons that you could make right now. We just need to see where it ends up.”

Of course, with the rabid following Kentucky has and the expectations Calipari’s yearly recruiting feats have generated, even the need to say the words, “there’s no need to panic” will cause some to panic.

Still, there’s at least cause for concern. In addition to inside answers, Calipari also needs more disciplined play from his freshman guards, and he badly needs Dominique Hawkins to return from a sprained ankle, so he can buy a few minutes of rest for Tyler Ulis, and perhaps more defensive toughness when the freshman guards don’t want to provide it.

Jamal Murray is averaging 17.8 points per game, but he’s shooting only 42 percent from the field. He needed 22 shots to score 20 points at Auburn, and his season assist-to-turnover ratio is upside down — 51 turnovers to 43 assists. From Isaiah Briscoe, the Wildcats need better free-throw shooting, and better offensive decision-making.

And defense is a concern, though talked about less. Through 17 games, this team is giving up a higher field goal percentage (41.0) than any Calipari team at UK, while blocking fewer shots (93).

Arkansas (9-8, 3-2 SEC) isn’t a must-win for Kentucky. But it would be, as Lexington Herald-Leader columnist John Clay writes, a big win.

The details, and three things to watch:

Time: 7 p.m., Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville, Ark.

TV: ESPN (Joe Tessitore, Sean Farnham)

Series: UK leads 27-11 and has won two straight.

Line: Arkansas opened a 1.5-point favorite at home, but Kentucky is now a 2.5-point favorite. The under is 152.

1. WILL WILLIS START? Derek Willis had 12 points and 12 rebounds in Saturday’s loss at Auburn, and his defense and rebounding pleased Calipari, who said his ability to stretch defenses with his shooting is something Kentucky can work with. He is the first Kentucky native with at least 12 and 12 in a road SEC game since Reggie Hanson did it in 1990.

But will Willis crack the starting lineup tonight? Calipari has been critical of his defense, but he clearly is putting in work on the “toughness” elements of his game. He’s tough from the line — has made 20 straight. 

At a news conference on Wednesday, assistant coach John Robic said, “Derek is in a great frame of mind. . . . Can he continue? It seems like it, but today is a different day. He’s finally rebounding the ball with two hands. He’s playing way above the rim. He made very easy plays. He made a crazy play in practice yesterday, but he just said that he lost his mind. If he can simplify things, he’s 6-9 and can stretch the defense. You’re telling me that he can go in and get anywhere from six to seven, eight, nine, 10 rebounds? I know he had 12, I think, the other day, which we needed them. That’s a big boost.”

2. CAN KENTUCKY RESPOND ON THE ROAD? The Wildcats’ best non-home effort of the season came early, in a win over Duke. Since then, only a win at Alabama shores up some shaky performances away from Rupp Arena. They lost at UCLA. They fell to Ohio State in Brooklyn. They lost to a depleted Auburn team on the road. Winning on the road isn’t easy for anyone, but for young teams, it can be especially challenging. Kentucky doesn’t get much of a break facing Arkansas, during a “white-out” game.

“I think the first time out to play on the road was a shock to them,” Robic said. “Now they’re starting to sense when you go to Alabama and it’s sold out, you go to Auburn and it’s sold out, this game is sold out at Arkansas with another T-shirt giveaway, they understand now. The teams are excited to play Kentucky. They’re excited to play us but we have to have more excitement and more energy to play them, especially going into their building.”

3. SCOUTING THE RAZORBACKS. They beat Kentucky in Bud Walton Arena in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Coach Mike Anderson is 4-4 against the Wildcats, and Fayetteville has been as tough a place as there is to win in the nation. They’re 75-9 there under Anderson, and only two programs have won more home games in that span: Kentucky (79) and Ohio State (78). They’re 2-0 when unranked and facing teams ranked from 20-25 in the AP poll at home under Anderson. Arkansas ranks third in the nation in three-point shooting percentage at 44.7 percent, behind only Kansas and Oklahoma. That percentage is largely built behind the outside shooting of Anthlon Bell (55-116, 47.4 percent) and Dusty Hannahs (44-92, 47.8 percent). In addition to those two, the Razorbacks get 16.9 points per game from 6-10 junior Moses Kingsley. They are the only Power 5 conference team in the nation with three players averaging 15 points a game or better.

“Arkansas has (been) shooting the ball really well,” Robic said. “It is probably one of their better shooting teams since Rotnei Clarke played there, the kid who transferred from, I believe, Butler. Anthlon Bell and Hannahs can really shoot the ball. If you look at their stats, they take the majority of their threes, those two young men, but shoot it at a really high percentage. I would call them both elite shooters, both off the dribble and off the catch. Their teammates do a good job of finding them open.”

Arkansas leads the SEC in three-point percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, scoring offense, blocked shots per game and turnover margin. That margin, of course, is built by the press. It has been a staple of Anderson’s, and Robic says Kentucky has been preparing for it.

“They are not going to change. They do it quite a bit. They do it more at home than they do on the road,” he said. “We have played against teams that have pressed us and had success. Going on the road and doing it is a different story. We just have to be ready for pressure and be willing to attack it, have great spacing, and be strong with the ball.”

Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.


  • Sign Up for the WDRB Sports Newsletter

    * denotes required fields

    Thank you for signing up! You will receive a confirmation email shortly.
  • Sign Up for WDRB's Sports Newsletter

    * denotes required fields

    Thank you for signing up! You will receive a confirmation email shortly.
Powered by Frankly
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2018 WDRB. All Rights Reserved. For more information on this site, please read our Privacy Policy, and Terms of Service, and Ad Choices.