There’s no way to sugarcoat a 97-71 loss. It was ugly.
The it, of course, was Kentucky’s blowout of the Arkansas Razorbacks last Saturday. The Hogs teased their fans by running with the Wildcats for a half. They trailed just 41-38 at the break.
But in hindsight, that first half might have been more of a case of the Wildcats playing with their food before getting bored and going for the kill.
Maybe I’m not giving the Razorbacks enough credit, but when Kentucky finally went for the jugular, the Hogs appeared helpless to stop the onslaught.
Defensively, the Razorbacks couldn’t stop the ball in transition as De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe pushed the ball at a frenetic pace and beat the Razorbacks off the dribble, seemingly at will.
With those two breaking the defense down, Edrice Adebayo got what he wanted in the paint, Derek Willis pulled the string from the three-point line with impunity, and eventually Malik Monk got in on the fun, too, after the Hogs had effectively clamped down on him in the first half.
Offensively, the Razorbacks’ one-on-one play led by junior guard Jaylen Barford was effective in the first half, but as Kentucky tightened the screws defensively, driving lanes became harder and harder to come by and missed shots only ignited the Wildcats’ transition machine.
Half way through the second half, Kentucky had broken the Razorbacks’ will and the blowout was on.
Yes, Kentucky is one of the most talented teams in the country and odds are by March, John Calipari will guide the Wildcats into being one of the best the best teams in the country in not the best.
Calipari’s not so much a coach anymore but a chef working with the finest ingredients. Yes, he has different ingredients each year, but he has four months to figure out how best to blend them before the Wildcats’ real season begins in the NCAA Tournament. Anything less than a Final Four appearance for Kentucky is failure.
Success this season for the Razorbacks will be measured by an NCAA Tournament bid. Anything less will be a huge disappointment for the fans, the Razorbacks, and head coach Mike Anderson.
So the question is will the Hogs make the Big Dance?
If you were to shake it up and ask the Magic Eight Ball, the answer would be “Check Back Later” or “Answer Uncertain.”
Sitting at 12-3 overall and 1-2 in SEC play, the Hogs are squarely in the hunt for an NCAA invitation with 16 games to play, but the Razorbacks must show improvement and pile up as many wins as possible.
Every aspect of their game will have to improve as they move through this season if the Hogs are to earn their way into the tournament.
At times the Razorbacks have played solid defense this season, but against the best teams, Arkansas has had trouble stopping the ball in transition and cutting off penetration. That has to improve.
When Nolan Richardson had similar issues with some teams during his tenure as the Hogs’ coach, he moved to a tight matchup zone defense. He called it a “nutshell” defense. It cut down on penetration and helped alleviate some rebounding issues on the half court, but it left the squad vulnerable to three-point shooters.
I don’t know if the defense would be as effective today with so many teams doting on shooting three-pointers. It might not be something Anderson would or should consider, but his Hogs have to play better defense for longer periods in games if they want to improve.
I actually think the Razorbacks’ offensive issues are more of a concern. The Razorbacks are able to score in the paint thanks to their guards’ desire and ability to attack the basket. That aggressiveness and their fine free-throw shooting is what lifted the Hogs to a critical road win last Tuesday at Tennessee.
Currently, the Razorbacks have no legitimate post-up threat. Moses Kingsley is either incapable or unwilling to provide it. Granted his teammates aren’t the best at feeding the post. But the lack of a postman in the middle denies the offense the inside-out action that breaks down a defense.
That inside-out action is key to gain opportunities in the paint, but also to free up shooters like Dusty Hannahs and Daryl Macon, who have had a difficult time getting open three-point looks in conference play.
Dribble penetration can get defenders out of position, but when Arkansas’ guards drive, they are primarily looking to score and not to dish underneath or to set up a three-pointer.
Playing a high-low game with Kingsley and Thompson might help, but with the Razorbacks’ lack of size on the bench and Thompson’s foul issues, it’s not really an option. Most of Thompson’s playing time has to be reserved to give Kingsley a chance to catch his breath.
All that said, the Razorbacks will not face a tougher stretch this season than they did in their first three conference games. Few SEC teams could negotiate playing Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee and come out a record better than 1-2.
The Razorbacks have a great opportunity to get their heads above water in SEC play this week. Mississippi State visits Walton Arena at 8 p.m. Tuesday, and Missouri comes to town for a matchup at 5 p.m. Saturday. The SEC Network will televise both games.
The Razorbacks need to win both games. In fact, after dropping their conference opener to Florida, 81-72, on Dec. 29, the Hogs really can’t afford to let another home game slip away.
Ben Howland’s Mississippi State Bulldogs appear much improved over last season with a 10-4 overall record. They are 1-1 in SEC after losing, 68-58, to Alabama, but the Bulldogs were more than feisty last Saturday. They romped on LSU, 85-78, at Baton Rouge, La.
Missouri is struggling with a 5-9 overall mark and an 0-2 SEC record going into their game Tuesday against Auburn.
The Razorbacks need to brush off the loss to Kentucky and not get caught up in licking their wounds. The Bulldogs will present enough of a challenge without a Kentucky hangover lingering to trip them up.
This Razorback team has potential to be a solid team, an NCAA Tournament team, but now is the time to start making that potential a reality.