GAME NOTES: The Arkansas Razorbacks will attempt to keep their outstanding record at Bud Walton Arena alive on Saturday afternoon, as they play host to the Kentucky Wildcats in an SEC showdown.
Since losing back-to-back games against Florida and Tennessee in mid-February, Kentucky rebounded with an undefeated three-game homestand, with its most recent victory coming in convincing fashion versus last-place Mississippi State on Wednesday (85-55). The Wildcats, who are considered a bubble team for an NCAA Tournament selection, are 20-8 overall and 11-4 in the SEC, and following Florida's loss earlier in the week, they are just one game out of first place with three games remaining, including a home bout with the Gators in the season finale on March 9.
Arkansas recently embarked on a two-game road swing, coming away with losses to Florida last Saturday (71-54) and LSU on Wednesday (65-60) to dip to 17-11 overall and 8-7 in league play, two games out of a top-four seed and first- round bye in the upcoming SEC Tournament. The Razorbacks have failed to break through due to their poor road record (1-8), but at home, they have been fantastic (16-1).
Kentucky has defeated Arkansas in 11 of the past 12 meetings to improve its advantage in the all-time series to 25-8.
The Wildcats' latest outing was nothing short of a breeze, as they shot 54.8 percent from the field while holding Mississippi State to 32.1 percent as they cruised to the 30-point victory. All five starters finished in double figures in the triumph, led by 19 points from Ryan Harrow, who also tacked on seven rebounds and four assists. Alex Poythress (16 points, eight rebounds) and Willie-Cauley Stein (12 points, six rebounds, three blocks) were impressive at forward, while Archie Goodwin and Julius Mays netted 11 points apiece. Kentucky has grown accustomed to great all-around efforts this season, as it ranks in the SEC's top-three in scoring (75.3 ppg), field goal percentage (.486), 3-point percentage (.366), field goal percentage defense (.390) and scoring margin (+10.9). Even without the presence of superstar freshman Nerlens Noel (10.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 4.4 bpg, 2.1 spg), who is lost for the season with a torn ACL, the Wildcats have plenty of talent, paced by fellow freshmen Goodwin (13.8 ppg), Poythress (12.0 ppg) and Cauley-Stein (8.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.0 bpg). Upperclassmen Kyle Wiltjer (11.0 ppg), Harrow (10.2 ppg) and Mays (10.0 ppg) bring stellar play to the perimeter.
The Razorbacks dug themselves a 13-point halftime deficit on Wednesday night and could never fully recover as they were saddled with the five-point defeat. They played impressive defense, holding LSU to 42.3 percent from the field while forcing 18 turnovers, but their performance at the offensive end could not keep pace (.357 FG percentage, 19 turnovers). Marshawn Powell had an uncharacteristically poor shooting night, both from the field (5-of-14) and the foul line (7-of-13), but he still finished with a team-high 17 points and eight rebounds. Mardracus Wade was solid from 3-point range (3-of-7) on his way to 15 points while also coming up with four steals. On the season, Arkansas ranks just below Kentucky on the SEC's scoring list with 74.2 ppg, but it has put up 62 points or fewer in four of its last six games. It is also plagued by one of the league's worst scoring offenses (68.3 ppg), but it is at least active in the turnover battle with one of the top turnover margins in the nation (+5.8). The Hogs are paced by the inside-outside duo of BJ Young (15.3 ppg, 3.7 apg) and Powell (14.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg), and while no one else averages double figures, nine others net between 3.3 and 7.3 ppg.
Both teams have been Jekyll and Hyde performers this season, which does not bode well for its long-term prospects. In a vacuum, Kentucky is the more impressive team, even without Noel, but the Razorbacks have had their way in Fayetteville and that has allowed them to earn wins over SEC favorites Florida, Missouri and Tennessee (as well as non-conference foe Oklahoma), and they'll find way to outlast the Wildcats in this one.
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