This is the big one Razorback fans!
Kentucky is coming to town for a 1 p.m. date Saturday with the surging No. 18 Arkansas Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena, and they are looking to knock the Hogs off their stride.
Yes, I know Auburn is still the top-rated team in the SEC by the Associated Press Poll at No. 3 with John Calipari’s Wildcats creeping behind them at No. 6.
Opponent: vs. Kentucky
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Up next for the Hogs
March 2 – LSU, 8 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
March 5 – at Tennessee, 11 a.m. (ESPN)
March 9-13 SEC Tournament Tampa, Fla.
However, if you look at the way the two teams have been playing of late and consider Kentucky has been without two key guards in TyTy Washington and Shavir Wheeler, in your heart of hearts, which team do you really think is playing better, right now?
The NCAA Net Rankings puts its money on Kentucky as the No. 3 team in the nation, while it has Auburn at No. 11. Tennessee is at No. 9, LSU at No. 17, Alabama at No. 22, and Arkansas at No. 23.
I’m not going to say that there aren’t some issues with the NCAA’s Net Rankings, which gives an overall view of what a team has accomplished in the season rather than a portrait of how they are currently playing, but who is currently the best team in the SEC is debatable.
The Wildcats (23-5, 12-3 SEC) are currently playing the best ball in the SEC alongside the Vols (20-7, 11-4) and of course the Razorbacks (22-6, 11-4).
Auburn (25-3, 13-2) still leads the conference by a game over Kentucky and two games over the Hogs and Vols, who are tied for third.
However with Bruce Pearl’s Tigers visiting Knoxville for a 3 p.m. contest with Tennessee Saturday, there could be a sizable shakeup in the league standings this weekend.
Saturday really is a huge day for the top four teams in the SEC. It’s like the semi-finals of the SEC Tournament, just two weeks early. Depending on who wins and loses the league race could contract or expand.
However, with the Wildcats coming to Bud Walton Arena, let’s train our focus on that matchup, starting with the venue.
The Walton Arena crowd will play a role in the game. Twenty thousand plus are expected for the ballgame. A red-and-white “stripe out” has been planned by the UA, with fans asked to wear either red or white shirts based on where they sit..
Calipari takes pride that his Wildcats draw the ire of every road crowd, but revved-up Walton Arena crowds aren’t common as both Auburn and Tennessee can attest from their recent losses in the Palace of Mid-America. Saturday should be no less raucous.
If the Wildcats are immune to the atmosphere, it will still provide a booster shot of energy to the Razorbacks, who feed off the excitement generated by their fans. The fact that CBS is in town to nationally televise the game should only add fuel to the inferno.
The Wildcats are favored. As of this writing, we don’t know if Washington or Wheeler will play for the Wildcats on Saturday. Calipari is having a preview press conference for the game 10:30 a.m. Friday. He may or may not address their availability there.
Even if both are out, the Wildcats are a formidable foe for the Hogs, starting with the probable SEC and NCAA player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe. He’s averaging 16.4 points and a national-leading 15.3 rebounds per game. Tshiebwe is also fourth in the league in blocks with 1.5 per game.
At 6-9, 255 pounds, he’s the best rebounder the college game has seen in decades. He’s had 10 consecutive double-doubles and accomplished the feat 22 times in 28 games.
Arkansas’ 6-10 forward Jaylin Williams has been impressive and productive this season with 10 double-doubles himself, but his rebound production pales in comparison to Tshiebwe.
Williams, whose basketball IQ is high, knows Saturday’s game isn’t about one-on-one matchups.
— Eric Musselman (@EricPMusselman) February 23, 2022
“He’s one of the best rebounders ever,” Williams said of Tshiebwe. “He’s a great player. It’s going to be a team effort to stop him on the glass. I’m ready to play.”
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman marveled at what Tshiebwe accomplishes in the paint.
“He’s incredibly explosive as an offensive rebounder,” Musselman said. “You’re going to have to hold your ground, too. You’re going to need to have a wide base when you box out. If you box out with a skinny base, he’s going to dislodge you. That, we promise.
“So if you’re not a physical block-out player, and you skinny block out, you’re going to get pushed underneath the rim, and he’s going to grab the ball and dunk it.”
Tshiebwe is a bruising powerhouse, but it’s his speed, effort, and quickness that makes him an uncommon player. Musselman credited him with incredible energy and called him the best rim-runner in the college game.
“I know I’m going to have to sprint back every single time,” Williams said. “I know that’s going to be a challenge for sure, but it’s a battle I want to go against.”
Tshiebwe is a singular competitor, but the Wildcats are loaded with talent in their starting lineup and on their bench. Kentucky’s depth could become an issue for the Razorbacks as Musselman prefers to play a short bench with eight players getting most of the minutes.
Getting tired isn’t really the key issue for the well-conditioned Hogs as much as issues with foul trouble.
Razorbacks Williams, JD Notae, Stanley Umude, Devo Davis, and Au’Diese Toney have all been strapped with foul trouble at various times this season. Calipari has the luxury of saying “next” if one of his key performers is plagued with fouls. Musselman doesn’t really have that option.
It’s critical for Notae, the SEC’s second-leading scorer at 18.7 ppg. and top thief with 2.3 steals per game, to remain in the game for his defense and scoring.
“When we can keep JD on the court, we’re a better team in all aspects — defensively and offensively,” Williams said. “He’s our floor general. He runs the offense. He’s guarding their best, if not their second-best, player at all times. JD does everything for us, and when we can keep him on the court we’re a better team.”