Lately, a common saying around these parts is that “Arkansas basketball is the new Kentucky.” If Hog fans didn’t know that the trope is actually a comparison to “old” Kentucky, they would consider it an insult.
Despite it sounding like a good small batch bourbon, it’s more accurate because recently Kentucky has kinda, well – how do I say this – sucked, at least by Kentucky standards. There, I said it. Whether Kentucky basketball fans want to hear that or not isn’t something that keeps me up at night.
But let’s be clear, it is the reason the Hogs, not the Cats, will be playing Duke in the inaugural ACC-SEC Challenge in Fayetteville on Nov. 29.
Arkansas has had a lot of big games at Bud Walton Arena, but make no mistake, this could be the biggest – potentially surpassing a matchup with, you guessed it, Kentucky decades ago.
Kentucky Basketball on a Downhill Slide
There’s no doubt that many in Big Blue Nation must have wondered why the powers that be didn’t schedule the Dukies in Rupp Arena. JD King, a Duke basketball writer for SB Nation, openly acknowledged this and gigged them by writing, “You can almost feel the jealous vibes: why the rubes down there? What do they have that we don’t have?”
First of all, let’s get something out of the way: For Kentucky fans to call anyone a bunch of “rubes” would be like a prune accusing a raisin of being wrinkly. They may claim Ashley Judd, but let it be known that Johnny Cash is from Arkansas and Jessica Alba attends Hog games.
Back to basketball; Kentucky has been on a steady downhill slide since its last national championship in 2012. The Wildcats were runner-up in 2014, went to the Final Four in 2015 and made Elite Eight appearances in 2017 and 2019, sandwiched around a Sweet 16. Since then, though, they haven’t made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s also worth noting that they’ve lost three of four non-conference tilts with Duke since Calipari took over the program.
These are the facts and they are not in dispute.
Arkansas Basketball on the Rise
In four seasons with Eric Musselman, the Razorbacks have been to two Elite Eights – in 2021 and 2022 – and a Sweet 16 in 2023. Before that, in 2020, they were threatening an NCAA Tournament appearance with a team of vertically challenged guys before the pandemic shut the whole thing down for everyone.
Arkansas basketball has simply been hotter than Kentucky since Eric Musselman got to the Hill. It’s perfectly clear. Jay Bilas agrees.
“(Arkansas and Duke) have been two of the best teams in their respective leagues and have done well in the NCAA tournament,” Bilas told The Morning Rush, ESPN Arkansas’ morning sports talk show. “It’s a marquee game and that’s what everyone is looking for in these things.”
In fact, he even said Tennessee, Alabama and possibly Texas A&M are closer to being blue bloods than Kentucky right now.
Eric Musselman Better than Calipari?
Yes, it’s a marquee game and those are generally played by marquee players. Here’s the deal: John Calipari, the coach who everyone loves to hate (with the exception of Musselman, who appears to like him), made a conscious decision a while back to do everything he could to bring in a bunch of marquee players out of high school knowing he’d have them for only a year. Calipari would simply rely on talent and his ability to manage egos to win.
It’s a decent model if you can manage the egos. In fact, it’s a good enough model that Musselman uses it as well, but with slight variations. For instance, he saw last year how important it is to recruit men out of the portal to complement the talented kids coming out of high school. He’s done that better than Calipari.
And it turns out, he’s way better at managing egos, too. Somehow, Musselman seems to keep everyone relatively happy right up until they’re asked to move on to make way for a more talented transfer.
In fact, the only thing Musselman did wrong last year, in this guy’s humble opinion, is that when an entire game plan relies on driving to the basket, getting fouled and shooting an “and one,” you have to make sure your guys are strong enough to make a good chunk of the baskets they get fouled on. They also must actually be able to convert from the free throw line.
Both of those things were in short supply last season and the Hogs lost a lot more games than they should have because of it. Yet, Musselman still took Arkansas basketball to the second weekend of March Madness for the third year in a row, with almost no one from the team that got them there the year before. So what the Hell do I know?
Arkansas Replacing Kentucky as SEC Power
Meanwhile, Kentucky has lost more times than it’s won against Arkansas since Musselman arrived in God’s country. One of those wins was in Musselman’s first season when he inherited the previously mentioned squad that didn’t include anyone tall enough to qualify for most rides at Disney World.
It will take a lot more under-performing seasons for Kentucky basketball to be considered something other than a Blue Blood, but it hasn’t been playing like one for the past several years. The slide is real, and Arkansas’ selection as Duke’s opponent just drives that point home further.
“The days of Kentucky just dominating the SEC are over, at least for now and possibly for a long time,” Duke columnist JK King wrote.
Meanwhile, Arkansas’ results are undeniable. That, my friends, is why the Blue Devils are coming to the Bud instead of Rupp this fall.
Soak it in, Kentucky, because it’s not going to change until the Wildcats start living up to their hype again.
More coverage of Arkansas basketball and John Calipari from BoAS…