Saturday afternoon, Kentucky travels to Fayetteville, renewing their rivalry with Mike Anderson and his Arkansas Razorbacks. The game itself may be over a day away, but its significance is already widely known around the college basketball landscape. It’s been repeated to the point of nauseousness in recent weeks, but a victory would be truly significant in Kentucky’s quest for an NCAA Tournament bid. It’ll certainly be a test of wills as Arkansas’ gym, Bud Walton Arena, is one of collegiate basketball’s toughest venues. Magnifying the undeniable home-court advantage will be the Razorbacks themselves who have drastically increased their level of play in recent weeks. Granted, they’ve thrown in some road clunkers against Vanderbilt and LSU, but they’ve also knocked off Missouri and Florida at home, proving they’re more than capable of playing up to their competition. Arkansas is by no means a complete team, but they possess numerous players capable of infuriating a visiting opponent.
From an overall team standpoint, the Razorback offense won’t blow anyone away. However, Arkansas’ top two can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the SEC. They may not be recognized as elite on the broader scale, but B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell can hang with anyone in conference.
Through Arkansas’ 28 games, 6-foot-3 B.J. Young is averaging 15.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. Unlike some of Kentucky’s most recent opponents, Young is a point guard who highly values each possession on offense, turning the ball over just 2.1 times per game. Of course, this highly contrasts Phil Pressey and Craig Sword who both averaged nearly four turnovers per game. For perspective on how strong Young is at handling the ball, in any typical game, he’ll end a possession around 20 times, whereas Archie Goodwin usually ends around 18 possessions. While Archie turns the ball over 3.2 times per game, Young only manages to lose possession 2.1 times. Even though he’s one of the conference’s leaders in usage rate, he’s still among the leaders in control. Young is certainly an outstanding ball handler, but he isn’t without fault. On the season, he has only managed to shoot 22% from three, ranking him last among teammates who have attempted over 35 threes. Regardless of perimeter shooting ability, containing Young’s lane penetration will be key.
While Young leads the Razorback offense with his handling and distributing abilities, Marshawn Powell brings phenomenal interior scoring and rebounding ability. On the season, Powell is averaging 14.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game. Even more impressive is the level of efficiency in which he attains his near 15-points per game. As it currently stands, the 6-foot-7 Powell connects on 54% of his interior shots and 40% of his perimeter attempts. Additionally, he pulls down nearly two offensive boards per game, making him even more of a match-up issue for Kentucky. Given Kentucky’s roster attrition, there’s only one man truly capable of guarding Powell; Alex Poythress. While Poythress has experienced his bouts with foul trouble this season, John Calipari needs a complete defensive effort out of him in order to pull out the road victory.
The Razorback’s are currently ranked 77th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to Kenpom.com. While Mike Anderson’s defense isn’t up to Nolan Richardson’s gold standard of the 1990’s, they do, however, have the main premise of “40-minutes of Hell” down pat. As it stands today, the Hogs are ranked 16th nationally in defensive turnover percentage, forcing an opponent miscue on 24.6% of possessions. Whereas most teams who force a high number of turnovers rely heavily on one or two players, the Razorbacks gather steals by committee as eight players average over 0.5 steals per game. Granted, three players (Marshawn Powell, Coty Clarke, and Mardracus Wade) average over one per game, but given the sheer amount of players forcing turnovers, it’s difficult to prepare as someone is always well rested and ready to bring intensity. If Kentucky responds positively to the pressure, we have an excellent opportunity to march out of Bud Walton with a victory. However, if Arkansas is able to stress our guards, it could be a long afternoon.
Opinions currently vary on the tournament status of Kentucky; some say were off the bubble (for the time being), while others say we still have work to do. Truthfully, it’s anyone’s guess in regards to our post-season status. However, there’s only one way to assure a spot in the big dance; winning. That’ll be easier said than done come Saturday as Arkansas looks to boost their already stellar home record to 17-1 on the season. That being said, if Kentucky marches into a raucous Bud Walton Arena and does what Florida, Missouri, and Tennessee couldn’t, there’s no doubting our NCAA status then.