Following the difficult loss to South Carolina in Columbia on Wednesday night, Kentucky had their hands full heading to Fayetteville to face an Arkansas team who was undefeated at home under their new head coach. The Hogs have been one of the surprise stories this basketball season and their unique lineup has been an issue for a lot of teams. Kentucky was going to have to put together one of their best efforts of the season to come away with a victory.
Following a hot start just to see a second half lead slip away, their coach was tossed with eight minutes and change to play and all of a sudden Kentucky found themselves trailing in the middle of a wild atmosphere.
The team immediately responded with some much needed stops after going to a matchup zone defense and that propelled UK to go on a 15-3 run to build a double-digit lead to take control of the game. It was perhaps the most impressive thing this team has done all year.
Kentucky scored 73 points in 73 possessions and averaged 1 point per trip against one of the best defenses in the country. The Wildcats still lead the conference in three-point shooting percentage (.403) and they got off to a hot start hitting four early before finishing the game 5 0f 14 behind the arc. Where UK did their damage was in the paint and at the free throw line collecting a combined 52 points. Nick Richards was again the most efficient option on the offensive end.
The junior had a monster size advantage and in crunch time the Wildcats made sure they gave the 6-foot-11 big plenty of touches. Richards finished with 14 points on eight shots and five free throw makes. He is shooting 68.2 percent from the field this season and that is among the best in college basketball. He was the one guy Arkansas simply did not have an answer for and Kentucky was able to take advantage of that mismatch just enough.
On the perimeter, Immanuel Quickley drew the starting assignment over Keion Brooks and never left the floor. The sophomore guard played all 40 minutes, but saw his hot shooting streak come to an end. Quickley needed 14 shots to score 13 points, but he came down with four offensive rebounds that helped give him a double-double and his three capped off that huge run after the Cal ejection.
Ashton Hagans led the team in plus/minus recording a plus-14 and the sophomore point guard’s two three-point makes helped bolster his three-point shooting percentage to 31.6 percent. Hagans recorded at least five assists for the 15th time this season and only had one turnover in 34 minutes against a very good defense. His shot selection can be questionable and he’s missing point blank shots he should make, but he’s brining it for Kentucky every night and more times than not he’s been the best point guard on the floor.
Tyrese Maxey had a ho hum game where he finished with just 11 points, but he hit 5 of 7 shots and put a lot of pressure on the Arkansas defense with quick downhill drives. He played within himself and was there for the team when they needed him most. The story of the game may have been the production that Keion Brooks and Johnny Juzang gave UK off the bench. The two along with Nate Sestina gave UK 18 points off the bench on 6 of 13 shooting with a couple of made threes. This type of production hasn’t been there for UK all season.
Ball security, however, was an issue with 16 turnovers and a good amount of these were responsible to some questionable offensive foul calls. These lost opportunities ruined what could have been a bigger offensive day against a very good defensive team.
Kentucky allowed 66 points on 73 possessions with Arkansas scoring just 0.90 points per trip. The Wildcats are currently tied with Tennessee in defensive efficiency in SEC play as they did a great job taking the three-point shot away from Arkansas and the Hogs proved why they ranked in the 80s in offensive efficiency entering the game. They struggle to generate offense inside the arc and if transition opportunities are not there it can be a long day for them on the offensive end.
The Razorbacks shot 30.8 percent from three-point range and a not much better 35.5 percent from two. They depend heavily on their three-guard combo of Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones and Jimmy Whitt and these three were pretty much shutdown outside of second half free throws. The trio combined to shoot just 4 of 16 from three and 8 of 22 from two for a combined field goal percentage of 31.6 percent. Arkansas simply wasn’t winning with this kind of production. Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley were all up to the challenge even if it meant Hagans and Maxey spending most of the game in foul trouble.
The turning point of the game, however, occurred in the second half following the Cal ejection. The Wildcats were doing an okay job in the second half, but the Hogs became more persistent in going after offensive rebounds and that opened up some second chance opportunities. Looking to befuddle this “4-out, 1-in” offense, Kentucky went to a 2-3 matchup zone for the first time this season.
As you see on this possession, Arkansas ends up with a turnover because they really don’t know how to attack Kentucky. The zone morphs into a man-to-man defense late in the shot clock and it ends with an offensive three-second violation where three players are all standing in the paint together. On other trips, it ended with threes that turned into bricks and the move was a great call by Kenny Payne, Tony Barbee, John Robic and Joel Justus when Cal went into the locker room.
When Immanuel Quickley is inserted into the starting lineup, one of the big concerns could be if the Wildcats will be able to get any bench production. Thanks to what Arkansas has on the offensive end, UK’s three guards were going to to need to exert a lot of energy on the defensive end and that could affect their offensive production. Therefore, buckets were going to have to come from somewhere else and getting just one point in 30 minutes from EJ Montgomery is not a recipe for success.
However, two freshman came up big for the Wildcats on the road. Johnny Juzang followed a nice performance against South Carolina with an even better outing against Arkansas as he poured in a corner three and gave UK a positive 17 minutes. Keion Brooks was outstanding in the second half as he finished the game with 10 points and 7 rebounds in 17 minutes. He was a key piece to UK’s closing lineup once EJ Montgomery fouled out and he came away with some big time rebounds when UK had to have them.
If Immanuel Quickley in the starting five becomes a permanent thing, UK will need its freshman along with Nate Sestina to give production off the bench. What we just saw in Bud Walton Arena is a very good start.
In a bounce back spot after a tough loss, Kentucky found itself with a very good matchup. The Wildcats have traditionally played well in Fayetteville under John Calipari and they were facing a team they matched up well with. Arkansas runs a very unique offense, but they can be very inefficient if the threes aren’t falling while they don’t really care to chase offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, their lack of size should give Kentucky plenty of second chance opportunities on offense while UK’s three-guard lineup should be able to play through the ball pressure they use on defense.
We saw some of those results play out on the floor as the Wildcats held a plus-18 advantage on the glass with 12 offensive rebounds while Arkansas couldn’t get the threes to drop. Kentucky’s three guards only had five turnovers and they seemed to be in control throughout. Despite all of that, you still have to make the plays in crunch time.
Following the Calipari ejection, Kentucky found itself in a tough spot trailing on the road and without their head coach on the bench. Even in that storm, UK immediately answered the bell with one of its best four minute stretches of the season and the result was a quick run that allowed the Wildcats to collect a big road win in a building that has been very good to the home team this season. They got production from every spot on the floor and you can start to see the ceiling of the team after going through the many ups and downs.
On to Georgia.