It’s January, and it’s Saturday and usually when those two things come together it means one thing: Kentucky will be playing in a marquee, SEC basketball game. This week is absolutely no different as the Wildcats are headed to Fayetteville to face the Arkansas Razorbacks.
And while Arkansas is unranked in the polls, trust me, this is in fact a mega-game. The Hogs enter this one at 14-2 overall, with one loss coming in overtime (at Western Kentucky) and the other by two points, on the road, against first place LSU. Frankly, the fact that Arkansas is unranked is a crime that should be punishable by jail time for voters (but that’s another conversation for another day). It also doesn’t change the fact that this team can absolutely, positively play.
So when you factor in Arkansas’s talent with the insane environment we’re about to get Saturday afternoon at Bud Walton Arena, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that this will be one of the Wildcats biggest challenges of the season. The fact that Kentucky is coming off a loss only heightens the intensity surrounding an already intense matchup at 4pm ET.
With this mega-showdown coming on Saturday, I decided to do what I always do as KSR’s resident national college basketball insider: When Kentucky plays a big game, I call a coach who has played that team and ask for an anonymous scouting report. In exchange for complete anonymity, that coach gives me details on what works and won’t work against the Razorbacks.
I’ve done this plenty over the last few years, most recently with the Wildcats game against Georgia just a few weeks ago.
Here is an opposing coach’s scouting report on Arkansas
Their offense almost entirely revolves around stars Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe
While the Razorbacks don’t get scoring from a lot of players, the guys who do score, can score in bunches. During Wednesday night’s win against Vanderbilt, grad transfer guard Jimmy Whitt became the third different Razorback to top the 30-point mark this season. Previously, junior Mason Jones and sophomore Isaiah Joe each topped the 30-point mark.
Still, with all due respect to Whitt, Jones and Joe are the engines that make this team go.
“Both can shoot the ball, both can really score at a high clip,” the coach said. “They basically have the ultimate green light.”
Yet what’s interesting about the pair, is that they do it in completely different ways.
Jones is the Swiss Army knife, do-it-all playmaker for the Razorbacks, a guy who can not only get his shot, but get others involved in as well. Incredibly, he leads the Hogs in points, rebounds, assists and steals coming in, yet is also a good enough pure scorer to have dropped 41 earlier this season against Tulsa. Joe meanwhile is more of a traditional three-point shooter, a guy who has attempted a staggering 176 three-pointers through 16 games.
Each has recently shown up in mock drafts, and the duo is the best that Kentucky will have seen to this point.
“They’re both pros,” the coach said.
For all Arkansas’s skill on the perimeter, they are thin down low
While there isn’t a team that the Wildcats have seen yet this season with the explosive backcourt talent of Arkansas (in addition to Jones and Joe, Whitt and Desi Sills are both double-digit scorers), Arkansas also has one of the thinnest front courts in major college basketball.
Forward Adrio Bailey plays alongside those guards in the starting lineup but stands just 6’6, with 6’8 Reggie Chaney coming off the bench. Neither is much of a scoring threat either.
“Their big guy is just more of just a clean-up guy,” the coach said. “[His job is] getting offensive rebounds, getting a dump pass, dunking and finishing at the rim. Or setting a ball screen and rolling.”
The Razorbacks worked hard in the off-season to get a 7’3 transfer named Connor Vanover cleared to play this season, but the NCAA denied the waiver. After seeing the Razorbacks a few times, it’s clear why that move was so important for this team in the preseason.
In addition to a lack of scoring punch, Arkansas’ lack of size is also their single biggest deficiency as a team.
In addition to the lack of scoring punch in the paint, Arkansas’ lack of size has been their single biggest issue this year. That isn’t just my opinion (or the coach’s) but back up by fact, as on the season the Razorbacks rank 320th in rebound margin in college basketball, grabbing four fewer rebounds per game than their opponent.
“The key to beating them is just abusing them inside,” the coach said.
That lack of size has cost the Razorbacks in some of their biggest games, most notably a loss at LSU. In the Razorbacks’ only SEC loss they were outrebounded by a staggering margin of 29 rebounds, with Darius Days accounting for 16 alone. On the night, the Razorbacks also gave up 23 offensive rebounds, another absurdly high number.
Frankly, it’s a credit to the Razorbacks that they were even in the game late (and a testament to the scoring capability of their perimeter players), but the single biggest place where Kentucky can exploit the Hogs as well.
If there was ever a game for EJ Montgomery to break out (or for Nick Richards to keep being Nick Richards) this would be it.
Speaking of which…
The single biggest place Kentucky can be exploited? The three-point line
Arkansas can be exposed down low, meaning that it’s imperative – and I cannot emphasize this enough, IMPERATIVE!!! – to feed the post to Richards and Montgomery down low. One, it is Kentucky’s single biggest place of strength. It also presents the best opportunity they have to take the crowd out of the game, if they can slow down the game, pound the ball and get easy baskets.
But really, it’s even bigger than that, because if Kentucky does start hoisting bad shots from the perimeter, then they’ll actually be playing into Arkansas biggest strength. The Razorbacks actually rank No. 1 in the country in three-point percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 23.8 percent per game.
More than that though, is something that is much, much more important: Because of the Razorbacks lack of size, most of their best offense actually come sin transition, and off the three-point shot.
“If you shoot a lot of threes, you’ve got to know that there is a lot of long rebounds,” the coach said. “That’s what they want. They want you to shoot a lot of threes, they want those long rebounds away from the rim and they can get it out and push it.”
Therefore, expect Arkansas to try and force Kentucky into tough, contested threes since, well, it plays into Arkansas’ biggest strength both offensively and defensively.
The Wildcats need to make sure that they are only taking high-percentage looks from beyond the arc. They also better make sure they get at least one guy (and maybe two or three) back in transition to stop the Hogs fast break.
Speaking of Arkansas defense – Kentucky better take care of the ball
Not only is Arkansas good defending the three-point line, but pretty much defending all over the court. With so many quick guards they are masters at jumping passing lanes, and average 9.1 steals per game, which ranks 23rd nationally.
The crazy thing is, there is no secret recipe to the Razorbacks’ success. They’re just a veteran team, and willing to outwork you.
“Defensively they’re just an in your face, man-to-man, get after you type team,” the coach said. “They try to bully you, be scrappy, run all over the floor. It’s just ‘let’s play harder than you,’ ‘let’s be scrappier than you,’ ‘let’s bully you.’ That’s an Eric Musselman coached defense.”
Coming off a game in which they had 15 turnovers against South Carolina, the Wildcats simply need to value the basketball more. Or again, it will lead to easy, fast-break points on the other end.
Finally, never get comfortable
Lastly, and this – more than anything – might be the most important element of this scouting report: Kentucky can’t get comfortable, ever. Not until the final whistle has been blown.
Listen, we all know that Coach Musselman has gained reputation of being a fearless coach, one whose teams never quit, and that is backed up by some of the wildest comebacks we’ve seen in recent college basketball history. We all remember Nevada’s run in the NCAA Tournament two years ago, when they came back from 14 down in the second half to beat Texas in Round 1, and then 22 down to beat Cincinnati in the second round (the second biggest comeback in college hoops history).
Beyond that what many don’t know is that the season before, Nevada had an even more impressive comeback, beating New Mexico after trailing by 25 points with… eight minutes to go. That has continued this season at Arkansas, where the Razorbacks have only faced double-digit deficits twice this season – and come back to win both games.
While this coach never faced Musselman at Nevada, he couldn’t help but be impressed with the reputation that the Razorbacks coach has built at each of his last two stops.
“He has to be one of the best, if not the best at getting his guys motivated to play, right?” the coach asked rhetorically. “Of instilling confidence in his guys.”
It seems so, and if there is one piece of advice Kentucky must follow it’s just that: The game isn’t over until the final whistle.