Arkansas sophomore Daniel Gafford / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
It’s a free opportunity for the Hogs.
That’s about all that can be said for this year’s game between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. at Rupp Arena on the SEC Network.
Unfortunately, this Razorback squad doesn’t have a good track record of taking advantage of small opportunities, much less ones that border on a David vs. Goliath mismatch.
With coach Mike Anderson’s Hogs (14-13, 5-9 SEC) tumbling on a five-game losing streak — the worst of the Anderson era — and Kentucky rebounding from a 73-71 loss to LSU a couple of weeks ago with three consecutive wins over Tennessee (86-69), Missouri (66-58), and Auburn (80-53), the Razorbacks and Wildcats are going in vastly different directions.
Gone is all the drama for what for a brief time was not only the marquee matchup in the SEC, but also one of the very best in all the land. Remember when for a couple of years CBS nationally televised the game as a warm-up for the Super Bowl?
Next up for the Razorbacks
Who: at Kentucky
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26
Where: Lexington, Ky.
Watch: SEC Network
March 2 – Ole Miss
March 6 – at Vanderbilt
March 9 – Alabama
March 13-17 – SEC Tournament
But all that’s truly a distant memory. The oldest of the players in tonight’s game weren’t even born in the glory days of what was a rivalry in the early to mid 1990s.
The Hogs have lost six times to the Wildcats since winning three in a row on March 2, 2013, and Jan. 14 and Feb. 27 of 2014. Even those wins seem a little distant at the moment.
I’d like to tell you that the Razorbacks have a shot at pulling off the upset tonight at Rupp Arena, but that would be a long shot even if Arkansas were playing well, and that’s certainly not the case.
The Razorbacks’ 87-80 loss to Texas A&M at Walton Arena has to be one of the most demoralizing losses in recent Razorback history. Usually, Hog fans could count on the Razorbacks responding when their backs were against the wall at Walton Arena, but it just wasn’t there last Saturday when a close game melted down into an ugly, ugly loss.
The Razorbacks continue to play hard under Anderson, but they aren’t playing as a team. The Hogs have fallen from being inconsistent to being disjointed and ineffective on both ends of the court.
The one ray of hope I can offer going into the game is that the Razorbacks have played well against LSU this season. The Razorbacks lost 94-88 in overtime at Walton Arena to the Tigers, but nipped LSU, 90-89, at Baton Rouge, La.
Though Kentucky and LSU are very different teams, both are big and athletic. Arkansas sophomore forward Daniel Gafford has played better at times this season against a big lineup. It should be interesting to watch Gafford go to work against 6-10 Wildcat freshman E.J. Montgomery, if his Hogs teammates get the ball to him on time.
The rest of the Hogs seem to like to play one-on-one ball. That’s what Kentucky’s defense is designed to make a team do. Maybe Arkansas can make something of that for a time.
Anderson said gang rebounding by the Razorbacks will be important, but that message has fallen on deaf ears most of this year. Gafford always gets his eight to 10 rebounds, but no other Hog is consistently good on the glass. The Razorbacks’ poor attention to rebounding tremendously weakens their defensive effort, which otherwise isn’t as bad as it seems.
The Razorbacks’ talent deficit at the four spot has been noticeable all year, and it will be even more so if 6-8 Kentucky sophomore forward P.J. Washington (15.2 ppg. and 7.9 reg.) plays his normal game. He’s one of the best in the league and seems to be getting better and better as the season moves toward tournament time.
Taking care of the basketball and outside shooting are areas the Razorbacks need to excel in if the Hogs hope to hang close with the Wildcats at all. If the Razorbacks can minimize their turnovers, and if Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones, and Keyshawn Embery-Simpson all show up hot, maybe the Hogs can make the game interesting for a time.
Ultimately, the Wildcats talent and depth will be too much for the Hogs. Kentucky probably wins easily, but the Razorbacks could draw some encouragement from the game if they don’t suffer a knockout blow early and fall behind by double digits early like they have so often this season.
Though a victory is not in the cards tonight for the Hogs, if the Razorbacks can just play well against Kentucky to keep it competitive through the first half, it could give them a boost going into the final three games of the regular season.
There aren’t a lot of goals left out there for the Hogs to accomplish, but if the Razorbacks can somehow win two of their last three games against Ole Miss on Saturday, at Vanderbilt March 6, and against Alabama on March 9, it would give them a .500 mark for the regular season.
Certainly, that’s not much of an accomplishment. It won’t bolster much pride, but it’s better to go into the SEC Tournament with an even mark than a losing one.
Finishing .500 or maybe one game above on the season is about the best the Razorbacks can accomplish.