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GAMEDAY: UK Hoops Travels to Arkansas For Ranked Matchup

Kentucky’s (18-4) matchup against the No. 25 Arkansas Razorbacks (18-5) might be the most difficult challenge they’ve faced up until this point in the season.

While the No. 15 ranked Lady Wildcats are 2-1 without star guard Rhyne Howard, they haven’t gone head-to-head against a team with talent like Arkansas in her absence. Howard will sit out her fourth consecutive game later on Sunday when the two teams meet down in Bud Walton Arena at 4 p.m. on ESPN2.

Here’s what you need to know about the Razorbacks.

Arkansas is led by head coach Mike Neighbors, who is currently in his third season with the Razorbacks and his seventh overall season as a head coach. He’s posted a 53-38 record during his short time at Arkansas and an overall record of 151-79. He spent four seasons as the head coach at Washington before replacing Jimmy Dykes (yes, the same Jimmy Dykes) as the head coach for Arkansas. During his 2017 season with the Huskies, Neighbors was named a finalist for the Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year. In just two-and-a-half years, he’s turned Arkansas from a 13-18 team to a squad looking to contend for an SEC Championship.

The Arkansas media guide has dubbed Neighbors as “the most interesting man in college basketball” and they might be on to something. Although, with the information they provided, I’d lean more towards the weirdest head coach in college basketball. Just read some of these anecdotes about the head coach from Arkansas’ official media guide.

  • Blueberry Please: When he got old enough to make his own breakfast, Pop-Tarts were a regular. He liked the chocolate ones as a kid but prefers frosted blueberry now.
  • He collects lunch boxes, shoes, and movies.
  • Athens City Champion: Coach stumbled upon a dart tournament while on a trip to Athens, Georgia. He joined in and was one of the two-man winning team.
  • He doesn’t conform to the typical guard and forward style of basketball either. Instead, he takes a page out of the Tom Crean book of insanity and somehow takes it a step further. Arkansas doesn’t have guards or wings, they have Rabbits, Rackers, Locks, and Dragons. And yes, each one has its own description. 
    • Rabbits run the floor and look to score quickly with a layup.
    • Rackers are the player with the ball – go to the rack.
    • Rackers are the player with the ball – go to the rack.
    • The Dragon is the last player down the court. Watch out for a long distance shot from this spot.

Incredible.

Arkansas is coming off a blowout loss to the No. 1 overall team in the country, South Carolina, falling 86-65 on Thursday. Kentucky fell to the Gamecocks back in early January, losing 99-72 down in Columbia.

Now on to the team, which features a plethora of dangerous shooters and a star guard.

Chelsea Dungee came into the year as a first-team selection for Preseason All-SEC and has lived up to that honor all year long. The 5-foot-11 junior is averaging a team-high 17.8 points to go along with 5.0 rebounds per game. She gets to the free-throw line at an elite rate, already making 110 shots from the charity stripe this season (out of 140 attempts for a 78.6 percentage). For comparison, Howard has only attempted 104 on the season.

Dungee holds several Arkansas single-season records and is on pace to go down as one of the greatest Arkansas basketball players of all-time. She went off for 38 points against Missouri earlier in the year and has attempted a team-high 349 shots this season. Similar to Howard, Dungee has been tabbed to several mid-season Player of the Year Watch Lists.

But what’s scary about this Razorback team is that Dungee hasn’t even been the team’s best player since SEC play started.

Both Alexis Tolefree and Amber Ramirez are putting up more points through 10 conference games than Dungee. Tolefree, a 5-foot-8 senior, is posting 17.3 points in SEC games while Ramirez, a 5-foot-9 redshirt junior, is adding 15.8 points per game (Dungee is down to 15.3 in SEC games). The Arkansas media guide has tabbed those two as the “Splash Sisters” and it’s hard to argue against their reasoning.

Tolefree and Ramirez have combined to make 138 triples, the most by any duo in the NCAA. They’re both shooting over 42 percent from three on the season and over 38 percent through 10 conference games. They’ve drilled more threes in SEC play than any other conference pairing. They’ll try to shoot up at least 14 combined triples between the two of them. Keeping them from getting easy looks is going to be key.

Joining the scoring trio of Dungee, Tolefree, and Ramirez in the starting lineup are 5-foot-8 freshman Makayla Daniels and 6-foot-1 junior Taylah Thomas. Much like the ‘Cats, Arkansas doesn’t roll out an ultra-tall rotation. Thomas is the only Razorback in the starting lineup over 6-feet tall and 6-foot-2 Erynn Barnum is the only 6-footer to come off the bench. Daniels is the team’s fourth-leading scorer at just under 10 points per game and the only Arkansas player shooting over 50 percent from three on at least 10 attempts.

Thomas averages a team-high 7.2 rebounds per game Barnum hauls in 4.7 per game as the team’s third-leading rebounder. Neither are premier scorers, but Thomas, in particular, is a beast on the offensive glass. She’s already secured 57 offensive boards this season, more than any Kentucky player. Both Thomas and Barnum shoot over 50 percent from the field with the majority of their looks coming from inside the perimeter.

Rounding out the rotation for Arkansas will be 5-foot-7 redshirt junior A’Tyanna Gaulden and 5-foot-9 sophomore Rokia Doumbia. Gaulden is the team’s leading assister while putting up over six points per game. Doumbia is a fantastic rebounder for her size, grabbing over four per game.

Daniels and Gaulden are the team’s two lead guards.

Arkansas is one of the best teams in the country at defending the three-ball, a shot Kentucky has struggled to hit with consistency over the last few games. Opponents of the Razorbacks make just 23.7 percent of their outside looks – the third-best mark in the entire country. The ‘Cats are shooting a mere 23.7 percent over its last three outings (14-59). Arkansas also holds a turnover margin of +5.83, 19th best in the nation.

The Razorbacks couple that defense by being one of the deadliest outside shooting teams in the country. Five players are shooting better than 38 percent from deep in conference play and three ladies have already unloaded at least 120 three-pointers (only Howard has hit that mark for Kentucky). Arkansas leads the SEC in three-point percentage at 37.5 percent, just slightly above Kentucky’s 35.9 percent clip.

Arkansas can put up points in a hurry. They rank second in the SEC (and fifth in the country) in scoring at 83.3 points per game, just behind South Carolina’s 83.4 for most in the conference. They can score from all areas of the court and are the nation’s leading team in turnover ratio. But keep in mind, the Wildcats boast the SEC’s top scoring defense, allowing just 56.1 points per game while forcing teams into over 21 miscues per game.

If two things can be stated as facts about Arkansas, it’s that they can shoot and they won’t turn the ball over. Going up against the SEC’s top defensive team, it should be a great battle to watch.

The Razorbacks aren’t known for their rebounding either – much like the ‘Cats. Arkansas is one of the worst teams in the nation when it comes to rebounding their own misses (some of that is due to the fact that they hardly miss). They are a solid defensive rebounding team but struggle to find second-chance points.

The lack of an inside presence should help Kentucky, even if they don’t have much of one themselves. KeKe McKinney is playing her best basketball of the season and Ogechi Anyagaligbo is coming off her best outing of the year in the team’s most recent win over Alabama.

Arkansas hasn’t beaten a top-15 opponent since taking down Tennessee back in 2016. They’re 2-15 in the Neighbors era against top-15 teams and 0-3 this season. This will be their best chance for an upset win thus far. Bud Walton Arena is going to be PUMPED for this game. Kentucky has won 10 straight against Arkansas 18 of the last 19 outings.

Tune in at 4 p.m. on ESPN2.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Recruiting reporter for KSR. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR