Arkansas vs Kentucky: Buckle Up for Another Record Breaker at Bud Walton Arena

There’s Blood in the Water for ShArkansas

Eric Musselman

The Razorbacks made it 12 wins in 13 games after their recent 82-74 road victory over the Florida Gators on Tuesday night. This was the first time Arkansas had won a game in Gainesville, FL since players like Corey Beck, Scotty Thurman, and Corliss Williamson were on the roster back in 1995. A mixture of good 3-point shooting and timely defensive stops down the stretch allowed the Hogs to head home with a victory. They now sit at 22-6 (11-4 in SEC) on the season, ranking 3rd in the SEC behind only Auburn and Kentucky.

Now, Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman will set his sights on one of the two remaining SEC teams above the Hogs in the standings as No. 6 Kentucky comes into Bud Walton Arena for the second time in Musselman’s Razorback tenure. The last time these two met in Fayetteville, AR, an iconic image was born of Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley plugging his ears to drown out the roar of a crazed Bud Walton Arena crowd as Wildcat head coach John Calipari was ejected from the game.

The upcoming matchup projects to host a similar crowd. The Arkansas Razorbacks are only a few weeks removed from knocking off top-ranked Auburn in Bud Walton Arena in front of an all-time high 20,327 fans in attendance. Kentucky (3rd in NET) has won 17 of their last 19 games, giving them a 23-5 (12-3) record. They’ve beaten top teams at home like LSU (17th in NET) and Tennessee (9th) and have a big road win at Kansas (5th). They’ve also suffered narrow road losses to Auburn (10th), LSU, and Tennessee. There is real possibility that Razorback fans could break their newly-set attendance record this weekend against the Wildcats.

“I can tell you from a ticket request standpoint, I told my wife don’t ask about tickets, I told my son don’t ask about tickets, I told the staff,” Musselman said yesterday. “The ticket requests right now are through the roof as it was against Auburn. 

What to Expect When Kentucky Has the Ball

Kentucky, as a team, is the best 3-point shooting team in the SEC. During conference play, they’ve knocked down an eye-opening 38% of their long-range attempts, good for 1st in the conference. By comparison, Arkansas ranks 7th in the conference at 32% during SEC play. The “good news” for Razorback fans: Kentucky’s 3-point percentage drops to 35% during SEC road games.

Kellen Grady, a fifth-year senior transfer from Davidson, leads the Wildcats in 3-point shooting. The 6-5 guard shoots 44% from long range on the season on roughly 6.7 attempts per game. He’s Kentucky’s second-leading scorer this season, averaging 12.4 points to go along with 2.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game. On the road, Grady’s 3-point percentage drops to 36.7% – a number that still easily leads all Razorbacks averaging at least one 3-point attempt per game (Trey Wade shoots 38% on 0.8 attempts per game).

Oscar Tshiebwe, a 6-9 junior, is Kentucky’s most imposing threat, however. He leads the country in rebounding at 15.3 per game – Jaylin Williams is second in the SEC at 9.6 RPG. Tsheibwe is on pace to be the first NCAA DI player since 1985 to average more than 15 rebounds per game, edging out Utah Valley’s Fardaws Aimaq (15.0 RPG in 2020-21). He also leads his team in scoring (16.4 PPG), steals (1.9 SPG), and blocked shots (1.5 BPG) while playing more than 30 minutes per game. Kentucky’s rebounding machine only averages 2.5 fouls per game despite leading the country in total offensive rebounds with 143 (second place has 112).

Jaylin Williams, despite being the Razorbacks’ best interior defender, allowed Florida’s Colin Castleton to score a career-high 29 points on Tuesday night, just a couple of weeks after allowing a career-high 19 rebounds to Auburn’s Walker Kessler. Williams’ apparent weak spot as a one-on-one defender is often covered up by his elite off-ball defensive IQ (i.e. drawing charges, help-side blocks, etc), but it is an area of concern that could keep him out of the NBA Draft for at least one more season. Coach Musselman’s game plan will likely be focused around containing Oscar Tshiebwe by defending the paint and rebounding as a team.

“This is not a one-positional matchup,” said head coach Eric Musselman about containing Tshiebwe. “When we played Auburn, it wasn’t just Trey Wade’s responsibility to guard Jabari Smith, it’s our whole team. Against Florida, we elected to play [Colin Castleton] a little more one-on-one and not give up three-balls because we gave up too much help to the interior in the first half…It’s going to be a five-man committee on the glass and guarding not only [Tshiebwe], but every night from here on out.” Jabari Smith was held to 38% shooting from the field against Arkansas (career 45% shooter) and scored 20 points thanks to a pair of triples in the last minute of overtime that kept Auburn’s hopes alive.

Arkansas Basketball Tactics from Eric Musselman

Musselman will likely deploy the defensive services of Stanley Umude and Kamani Johnson on Tshiebwe for stretches of the game, especially if Jaylin Williams falls into foul trouble early in the contest. Don’t be surprised however to see the Razorback guards staying home on 3-point threats during dribble penetration, allowing potential opportunities for Tshiebwe to catch lobs or dump-off passes. The Wildcats’ league-leading 3-point percentage will force the Hogs into picking their poison between helping on Tshiebwe or guarding the perimeter closely.

Sahvier Wheeler and Keion Brooks both have experience playing against Arkansas, though only one has done so as a Wildcat. Wheeler, a 5-10 point guard, played the Hogs twice as a member of the Georgia Bulldogs. He averaged 12.5 points, 3.5 assists, and 1.0 steals while shooting 52% from long range. This season, he averages 9.6 points to go along with an SEC-leading 7.1 assists per game on 28% 3-point shooting, though he is currently listed as questionable for the game against Arkansas after missing Kentucky’s most recent game against LSU on Wednesday night due to a wrist injury. Brooks, a 6-7 forward, averaged 10.0 points and 7.0 rebounds on 43% shooting from distance in his two previous games versus Arkansas. He averages 11.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game this season on 25% 3-point shooting.

TyTy Washington is perhaps Kentucky’s most exciting player. He averages 12.4 points, 4.1 assists, and 3.6 rebounds on the season while shooting 35% from long range, though he’s currently listed as questionable to play versus Arkansas with an ankle injury. The 20-year-old hasn’t played in a game for Kentucky since Tuesday, February 15th. If the 6-3 freshman guard does play, however, expect his confidence to be shaken in a raucous Bud Walton Arena. On the road this season, Washington’s shooting splits drop to 39% from the field, 24% from behind the arc, and 53% from the free-throw line – his worst road games came against comparable crowds in Auburn and Kansas where he combined for six points on 0-5 3-point shooting across both games.

What to Expect When Arkansas Has the Ball

Jaylin Williams recorded his 11th double-double in his last 15 games during the Razorback’s road win over Florida. He’s averaging 14.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game during the same 11-game stretch. Those numbers will be tested, however, as Tshiebwe matchups up with Williams on Saturday. Arkansas’s star forward did a phenomenal job of defending without fouling down the stretch of the Florida game after picking up his 4th foul midway through the second half, but he still allowed Colin Castleton to score a career-high 29 points to go along with six rebounds and only three fouls. Either Arkansas will have to rebound and defend as a team, or Jaylin Williams will have to have the game of his life to negate Tshiebwe.

JD Notae returned to a more familiar form against Florida, scoring 20+ points for the first time since Arkansas knocked off Auburn at home. He finished with 22 points, six rebounds, three assists, and two blocks while shooting 40% from deep and 86% from the free-throw line in the Razorbacks’ win over Florida. Notae’s offensive ability cannot be overstated, but ability means nothing of it is sitting on the bench. For the first time since Arkansas beat Little Rock on December 4th, Notae finished the game without committing a single foul, keeping himself available to coach Musselman all game and finishing with 39 minutes played. Notae’s ability to stay out of foul trouble will be a major key in each of the Hogs’ remaining games, including their looming matchup against Kentucky. In recent games, Devo Davis and Chris Lykes have stepped up to shoulder the ball-handling responsibilities when Notae hits the bench with foul trouble, but Arkansas’s offense clearly changes for the worse when their SEC Player of the Year candidate is not on the court.

Arkansas received an unexpected boost off the bench in their win over Florida from sophomore guard, Devo Davis. Despite becoming a fan favorite for his late-season performances a year ago, Davis has struggled to shoot consistently and take care of the basketball this season. In his last five games, however, the 6-4 guard is averaging 10.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 50% from the field, 53% from behind the arc, and 78% from the free-throw line while averaging only 1.4 turnovers per game. In the Hogs’ win over the Gators, Davis finished with 19 points – his second-highest total of the season behind 26 against Oklahoma – six rebounds, four assists, and zero turnovers. For the fourth time in his last five games, he made 2-3 (67%) of his 3-point attempts.

Not only has Davis seemingly found his jump shot, but he’s also gradually gaining his confidence. He’s attacking the rim in transition and rising for shots without hesitation, all while maintaining control and limiting his turnovers. Davis’ ability to contribute off the bench could provide a much-needed spark for the Razorbacks against Kentucky and in the remainder of their games as they approach the postseason. In Arkansas’s win over Kentucky last season, Davis started but played only 17 minutes. He scored four points on 40% shooting while adding three assists, two rebounds, and two steals in limited action. Ironically, it was JD Notae who came off the bench to play most of the guard minutes ahead of Davis and score 11 points on 33% 3-point shooting during the Razorbacks’ victory over Kentucky.

Arkansas vs Kentucky: What to Watch For

The Razorbacks lead the SEC in the fewest points allowed per game.  They’ve held their last 13 opponents to only 62.1 points per game, including allowing only 60.3 points per game to opponents in their last seven home games. In that same seven-game stretch, teams are shooting just 34% from the field, 26% from behind the arc, and under 70% from the free-throw line. The Hogs have established themselves as an elite defensive team and arguably the best in the SEC over the last several weeks.

Kentucky, however, boasts one of the best offenses in the nation. As a team, they rank 2nd in the conference in scoring at 77.9 points per game against SEC teams. They shoot a league-leading 47% from the field and 38% from beyond the arc. The Wildcats also average the lowest turnovers in the league during conference play at 11.7 per game. By comparison, Arkansas turns the ball over 12.7 times per game against SEC teams, good for 3rd in the conference.

Something has to give in this heavyweight bout. Arkansas does not have the firepower to out-score Kentucky barring an unexpected solo scoring performance, so their defense will have to once again flex their muscles at home if they want a chance to knock off the Wildcats.

Game Prediction

ESPN’s BPI gives Kentucky a 59% chance of beating Arkansas in Fayetteville, AR. Kentucky leads the all-time head-to-head series against Arkansas 33-12, including winning eight of the last 10 matchups. Arkansas won the last matchup between these teams in February of 2021 in Lexington. The last time the Hogs beat the Wildcats in Fayetteville was a put-back tip-in dunk from Michael Qualls back in January of 2014.

That streak will end on Saturday as Eric Musselman’s squad flexes their defensive muscles to overcome Kentucky’s offensive firepower. The Wildcats will shoot under their away-game averages as JD Notae leads the Hogs offensively. Jaylin Williams will struggle to contain Tshiebwe, but a balanced attack on both ends of the court from the Razorback role players will keep the Hogs in the game. Ultimately, the environment generated by the rabid, potentially record-breaking, sold-out crowd at Bud Walton Arena crowd will push the Hogs over the top, giving them their 13th win in 14 games.

Arkansas wins 74-71.

Even the Kentucky basketball writers are showing doubt for this one.

“Kentucky is no stranger to crazy road atmospheres,” Kentucky Sports Radio’s Tyler Thompson wrote. “The Cats face a “Super Bowl” environment every time they step outside of Rupp. This team embraces it, collecting “road kills” and doing the Griddy in enemy territory; however, if the Cats are without TyTy Washington and/or Sahvir Wheeler once again, pulling off a win like this may be too tall a task.”

How to Watch Arkansas vs Kentucky

#6 Kentucky Wildcats (23-5, 12-3)

#18 Arkansas Razorbacks (22-6, 11-4)

Where: Fayetteville, AR

Date: February 26th, 2022

Time: 1:00 PM CT

TV: CBS (Brad Nessler and Pete Gillen)

Online: Watch CBS

Radio: Learfield Razorback Sports Network (Chuck Barrett and Matt Zimmerman)
^ Listen to Razorback Sports Network Online (Tune In)
Razorback Gameday App

Arkansas vs Kentucky Notes

  • Jaylin Williams is on pace to have one of the best rebounding seasons in school history, especially in SEC play. His 154 rebounds in SEC games rank second. Bobby Portis has the school record for rebounds in SEC games at 168 (2015).
  • JD Notae is on pace to rank 5th in school history for single-season scoring avg in SEC games, currently 19.5.
  • The Wildcats own a 33-12 advantage in the series, including a 28-12 mark since Arkansas joined the SEC. Kentucky owns a slight 8-7 advantage in games played in Fayetteville (via Razorback Communications)

Author: Brandon Baker. Co-Department Head of Twitter: @Panamaniac03 and @OTHArkansas.

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