Ding-dong the wicked streak is dead! Saturday’s win over Alabama in Rupp Arena ended the four game losing streak, much to the relief of the entire Big Blue Nation. However, the Cats are not out of the woods yet, as they travel to Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks in Bud Walton Arena. Kentucky has beaten Arkansas five straight times, meaning no one on the Razorbacks’ current roster has played in a win over Kentucky. On the flip side, Arkansas has been really solid at home this season, sporting a 14-1 record at home, with the only loss being a 21-point loss to LSU at the beginning of January.
If you haven’t noticed, in recent years, some hostility has been brewing between the Razorbacks and the Wildcats. Arkansas plays with a rough and physical style of play that can often lead to games getting chippy for no reason.
Looking back on it, this budding rivalry started with the 2014-15 season, when the Arkansas players apparently met the Kentucky players back in the tunnels of the SEC Tournament to start talking trash. Moving forward a few years, Kentucky goes and takes prized in-state recruit Malik Monk which just fired up the Razorback fanbase even more, and was enough that a poll of each state’s most hated individual listed John Calipari as enemy number one in Arkansas. Finally, in last season’s SEC Championship, when the Cats had the game in hand, Arkansas started taking cheap shots, one on De’Aaron Fox resulting in an ejection and one on Dominique Hawkins resulting in a flagrant foul. Not to mention, before this game started, an Arkansas assistant coach was screaming at Malik Monk throughout warm-ups, taunting every move he made. Talk about bitter. In essence, the Arkansas players and many believe the coaching staff as well, are sore losers who don’t like losing to Kentucky as often as they do.
Let’s take a look at the experienced starting lineup the Razorbacks will throw at Kentucky tonight.
#0 Jaylen Barford, Senior Guard, 6’3″
Jaylen Barford is in his second season as a full-time starter for Head Coach Mike Anderson. Before these two seasons at Arkansas, Barford was listed as a First Team All-American by the National Junior College Athletic Association for his efforts at Motlow State Community College. Barford was one of the main guys talking trash during last year’s SEC Championship, but he did not take one of the cheap shots.
The senior is one of the best players in the Southeastern Conference this season. His team-leading 18.6 points per game is good for second in the conference, and his 44.6% three-point shooting is first in the conference. Beside those stats, Barford is giving 3.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and a team-leading 30 steals on the season. He combined for 27 points over two games against the Cats last season.
Defending Barford will be a tough task for Kentucky’s guards who did a fantastic job defending Collin Sexton on Saturday. However, Barford is a more physical guard than Sexton, and he brings loads of experience that the Wildcat guards just flat out do not have. With the crowd rocking at Bud Walton Arena, keeping composure on both ends against Barford will be big for Kentucky’s chances of getting out of Arkansas with a W.
#4 Daryl Macon, Senior Guard, 6’3″
Daryl Macon is the second of three starting senior guards for Mike Anderson this season. Similar to his backcourt-mate Barford, Macon is in his second year as a starter since joining the team after two years of junior college at Holmes Community College. He was tabbed with Third Team All-America honors by the National Junior College Athletic Association in his second year at Holmes CC.
The senior guard is just behind Barford as the second best player on this team. He’s the fourth leading scorer in the conference at 17 points per game, and the second-best shooter from deep, hitting 43.4% of his threes on the season. He leads the team with 4 assists per game, and is also pulling down 2.8 rebounds and swiping 1.1 steals per game. He shoots 87.8% from the free throw line on the season.
As the numbers indicate, defending Macon is just as important as guarding Barford for the Wildcats tonight. As one of three guards in this starting lineup, it is difficult to know how Coach Calipari will choose to defend them. Macon is more of the point guard, so I’d say Gilgeous-Alexander will likely match up with him, and Knox will match up with Barford, which would leave Diallo on the smallest guard, Anton Beard.
#10 Daniel Gafford, Freshman Forward, 6’11”
Daniel Gafford is the only starter for this Arkansas team that is not a senior. In fact, he is the polar opposite as a true freshman. Gafford was a top-50 player and four star prospect coming out of El Dorado High School in Arkansas. He is setting up to be a really good player for Mike Anderson down the line.
Starting in 19 games so far this season, Gafford has become a surprise freshman standout for the Razorbacks. He’s averaging 11.7 points, as well as leading the team in rebounds at 6.1 and blocks at 2 per game. Gafford hasn’t developed a perimeter game at this point in his career, attempting zero threes on the season and hitting just 53.1% of his free throws.
It will be the match up of two freshmen big men in the paint, as Gafford matches up with Kentucky’s Nick Richards as the biggest players on the floor. I’ve mentioned before how much Richards is improving on a game-by-game basis, and it showed again in his hot start in the Alabama game. If Richards is defending without fouling at the rim and pulling down strong two-handed rebounds, it makes Kentucky much more threatening to get out on the break.
#31 Anton Beard, Senior Guard, 6’0″
Anton Beard is the third and final senior guard in the starting lineup for the Razorbacks and is the third starter from the state of Arkansas. He’s been a part time starter for most of his career at Arkansas, but has started all 27 games for the Razorbacks this season. He combined for just 5 points in a total of 37 minutes of action against the Cats last season.
As the least ball-dominant guard of the three starters, Beard’s stats don’t match up with the other two guards. He’s still giving Mike Anderson 9.5 points, 3 assists, 2.5 rebounds, and 0.9 steals per game. He’s shooting a respectable 30.9% from three on the year, to go along with 76.2% from the charity stripe.
Beard is the smallest of the three guards, standing at only 6’0″ and 185 pounds. Seeing how he isn’t as big of a threat offensively, coupled with his size, I think Kentucky uses the combination of Hamidou Diallo and Quade Green to defend Beard. Green did a really good job in the second half of defending Alabama’s Collin Sexton, so Coach Cal has to be hoping that continues down the stretch of the season.
#13 Dustin Thomas, Senior Forward, 6’8″
Dustin Thomas is another two year starter for Arkansas that is only in his second year in Fayetteville despite being a senior. He spent the first two years of his college career at Colorado starting a combined 17 games, but has found much more success at Arkansas after sitting out his transfer year.
The senior doesn’t have numbers that jump off the page at you, but as with any blue collar type player, that doesn’t mean his contributions aren’t there. He’s averaging 5 points, 4.2 rebounds, and an assist per game. He has hit 1 of 2 of his attempted threes on the year and is shooting 66.7% of his free throws. Thomas totaled 4 points and 3 rebounds over two games against Kentucky last year.
Starting at the power forward position, Thomas measures in at 6’8″ and 225 pounds. He’ll match up with the multiple players that Kentucky plays at the position, including Wenyen Gabriel, PJ Washington, and Jarred Vanderbilt. I think this is a position that Kentucky has a big advantage and should be able to use to their advantage on offense.
Go Cats. Beat Razorbacks.