Arkansas vs Kentucky: Somehow, Khalif Battle Won’t Be Hottest Hand Walking into Rupp

Khalif Battle, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Kentucky
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

After accumulating its first hint of momentum since mid-December, the Arkansas basketball team fell flat on its face against Vanderbilt on its home court, suffering arguably the worst loss in the Eric Musselman era.

This is the first time the Commodores have ever beaten the Razorbacks three times in a row, and also the first time they’ve won two consecutive games in Bud Walton Arena.

Overall, it was the Hogs’ inability to keep Vanderbilt out of the paint and off the free throw line that sealed their depressing fate – despite a late comeback attempt consisting of back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the Commodore lead to only three points.

“Disappointed in our defense, for sure, in both halves,” Musselman said postgame. “I thought the game got away from us, kind of in the middle section. We did play hard down 15 or 16, whatever it was, and gave ourselves an opportunity to try to put the game into overtime. But 50 points given up, even though we scored 51, defended and fouled too much.”

This is only the sixth time in SEC play that Arkansas has allowed as many or more free throw attempts to their opponents as they earned themselves. The Hogs are 1-5 in such games, their only win coming by seven points on the road against Texas A&M less than two weeks ago.

Unfortunately for Arkansas, the schedule gets exponentially harder over the final three games compared to what it’s been for the previous three. The combination of Texas A&M, Missouri and Vanderbilt had a combined eight SEC wins prior to playing the Hogs.

The Razorbacks’ next three opponents – Kentucky, LSU, and Alabama – have combined to win 28 SEC games already with a few games left on the schedule. Up first on that list is a rematch with the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena.

Arkansas actually held its own surprisingly well against Kentucky in Fayetteville earlier this season, even retaking the lead nearly nine minutes into the second half and trailing by only one point with under three minutes to play. A late push from Kentucky, however, secured a six-point victory for the Wildcats.

Round 2 of Arkansas vs Kentucky is scheduled to tipoff at 12:30 p.m. CT Saturday and will be televised on CBS.

Previewing Kentucky Basketball

Antonio Reeves (6-4, Sr.) paces the Wildcats offensively with 19.9 points per game on over 44% shooting from long range. He got seemingly whatever he wanted against Arkansas the first time these teams met this year, scoring 24 points on 45% shooting from the field and 50% from distance.

Hog fans may remember Reeves most for his altercation with Razorback guard Devo Davis last season that resulted in Davis being ejected from the game with roughly 18 minutes to play and the Hogs trailing by only three points. 

The Wildcats would go on to win by nine points in Davis’ absence while Reeves poured in a career-high 37 points.

Davis was a non-factor in the second half against Vanderbilt after playing 10 of his 12 minutes in the first half – an occurrence that has become more common in recent months after he often played heavy minutes in the second halves before that over the course of his previous three seasons. Perhaps this played a role in Vanderbilt’s leading scorer Ezra Manjon tallying 22 points against the Hogs.

The matchup between Davis and Reeves – as well as Arkansas being able to return back to their impressive ability to limit their opponents’ best players on a nightly basis – could be a huge deciding factor in this game.

Rob Dillingham (6-2, Fr.) is the Wildcats’ second leading scorer, and he’ll be getting his first look at Arkansas this season after missing the last game with an injury. He’s averaging 14.8 points and 3.7 assists, but he’s actually improved his scoring output and overall efficiency in SEC play.

Against conference opponents, the true freshman is scoring 15.9 points on 50% shooting from the field and nearly 44% from long range – including a 35-point outing on 6-of-8 long-range shooting against Tennessee in early February. He’s also contributing 3.7 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals on the season.

Fellow true freshman Reed Sheppard (6-3) gave the Hogs fits the first time around as well. He tallied 14 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 4 steals and 1 block on relatively inefficient shooting by his standard – only 42% from the field and 67% from the free throw line.

On the season, he’s averaging 12.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.7 steals on 54% from the field and 52% from long range. This includes a career-high performance in his last game, a 32-point outburst against Mississippi State to go along with 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks on 79% from the field and 57% from long range. 

That’s even more deadly than the last line from Arkansas’ scorching-hot Khalif Battle, who racked up 36 points on “only” 53% shooting from the field and 40% from the arc against Vanderbilt. Unquestionably, Sheppard  lights up box scores and Arkansas has to find a way to limit that to stand any chance in this game.

Tre Mitchell (6-9, Sr.) and DJ Wagner (6-3, Fr.) round out the players averaging double-digit scoring for the Wildcats this season with 12.0 and 10.2 points, respectively. Mitchell leads the team in rebounding with 7.5 per game, including 1.8 offensive rebounds per game, while Wagner is among the team leaders in assists with 3.5 per game.

Four different Wildcats average at least 3.1 assists per game. For reference, not a single Razorback averages more than 2.2 assists per game.

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

At this point, it’s impossible to predict what to expect from this group of Hogs. After turning heads with impressive performances against some of the top teams in the country – including a single-digit loss to Kentucky – the Hogs displayed one of their worst performances of the Musselman era in their last game out against one of the bottom two teams in the SEC (unless you now consider Arkansas to be No. 13).

If the team that seems to only show up when the lights are brightest comes to play in Rupp Arena, fans could be in for a treat of a game even if the Hogs don’t pull out a victory in the end. But if the Razorbacks come out half asleep defensively and shooting poorly – like they so often have on the road this season – things could get ugly fast.

One thing we do know in advance of the upcoming matchup is that Jalen Graham will be available after missing the last three games due to injury. Musselman noted that Keyon Menifield could also be available to return.

Khalif Battle followed up his 42-point performance against Missouri with a 36-point encore in the loss to Vanderbilt. The reigning SEC Player of the Week earned 17 free throw attempts – knocking down 14 of them – which brings his attempt total up to 41 over his last three games, and he’s hitting them at a 90% clip.

The transfer guard’s ability to draw fouls and get to the free throw line is something Arkansas has been missing for several games this season. Prior to his last three contests, Battle only drew 40 total attempts in his last 15 games played. That’s an average of 2.7 per game compared to 13.7 over his last three games.

“He’s a player that’s in a groove right now,” Musselman said. “He’s got great confidence. Guys have done a good job getting him the ball. We’ve tried to add some sets to get him some different looks, and he’s playing at a really, really high level right now and put together some great games from an offensive standpoint.”

El Ellis scored in double figures for only the sixth time this season (third time in SEC play) with 19 points on 58% from the field and 50% from long range. He hit one of the late triples that gave Arkansas a chance to tie the game at the final buzzer, and on Thursday night even showed some good chemistry with his teammate off the court:

The improved scoring output of both Battle and Ellis is a breath of fresh air offensively, but none of the Hogs could do much of anything on the defensive end against Vanderbilt – the pair of offensive-minded transfer guards included.

Kentucky is coming off of back-to-back games scoring 90-plus points, including a 117-point outing against Alabama last weekend. Actually, the Wildcats have been scorching hot offensively for a while now. They have five games of over 100 points on the season and are averaging 89.3 points in their nine games since facing the Hogs.

In that nine-game stretch, Kentucky has scored 91 points or more five different times and is averaging shooting splits of 50% from the field, 42% from long range and 80% from the free throw line. Those would be impressive numbers for an individual player over a nine-game stretch, much less an entire team.

In the first matchup, Arkansas held Kentucky to only 63 points – their second-lowest point total of the season – on only 37% from the field and 33% from behind the arc. The Hogs are going to have to figure out how to replicate this type of defensive performance, even with the addition of Dillingham to the Wildcats’ lineup, to stay alive in this game.

Their offense certainly hasn’t been good enough to carry them to victories on the road this season. They’re averaging only 70.7 points away from home against SEC teams, including shooting only 42% from the field and worse than 25% from long range – though they do average 25.3 free throw attempts, nearly a full attempt more per game on the road versus at home.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Kentucky

Before Tuesday, Makhi Mitchell had been in the midst of easily the best stretch of basketball in his five-year collegiate career from a statistical standpoint. That came to an end against Vanderbilt when he went scoreless with only five rebounds – his fewest in the last four games – in 19 minutes of action.

Sure, part of that could simply be due to Mitchell not being used to sustaining that level of play, but the return of Trevon Brazile did cause Mitchell to play only 19 minutes, his second-lowest minute total in 9 games.

Now, with Jalen Graham on the verge of a return, it’ll be worth watching whether Arkansas sticks with the four-guard lineup that has served it well at times in recent games, or if it goes back to a more traditional two-big man look. Musselman seems to believe his team will revert back to playing two bigs unless necessity dictates otherwise.

“I think we’ll end up playing a little bit bigger down the stretch than the four guards,” Musselman said. “That happened out of necessity. I think we played well in some games. But certainly we went with a little bit bigger lineup when we made that run late game (against Vanderbilt).

“We’ll try to get (Brazile) more involved in the next few games. So I think we’ll have a little bit more of a traditional look. It doesn’t mean based on the way a game is going, or the matchups, that we won’t go back to four guards.”

It’s also worth noting that Brazile wasn’t available in the last Arkansas vs Kentucky matchup either. He might not have had as big of an impact this season as most projected him to, but his rebounding, rim protection and ability to stretch the floor from the 4 or 5 position still makes him a uniquely versatile player that can impact any given game.

“(Brazile) adds offensive rebounding to our team, which is an area we’ve lacked,” Musselman said. “I think he can be a perimeter threat for us from three. He’s got the ability to tip dunk, he can run the floor and got some easy brackets in transition based on his ability to run.

“Then, defensively, we’ve been a really good shot-blocking team all year, with the exception maybe of a few games. He can add shot-blocked to us as well, and he’s one of our better defensive rebounders.”

Brazile joined Battle and Mark with a team-high six rebounds each in the loss to Vanderbilt, though Brazile also added two offensive rebounds to his tally while the two guards combined for one total. He also hit a late 3-pointer as part of the comeback attempt that fell just short.

Brazile’s ability to seamlessly rejoin the team on the court while not negatively impacting the good performances we’ve seen recently from players like Mitchell will be crucial for Arkansas to end its season on a positive note.

Game Prediction

Arkansas is 14-35 against Kentucky all-time, including losing each of the last two contests with the Wildcats. Strangely enough, the Hogs are actually riding a two-game winning streak in Lexington, however, compared to being 1-5 against the Wildcats in their last six games in Fayetteville.

The Hogs don’t seem to have any quit in them, at least according to Khalif Battle after his second impressive scoring performance.

“I’m still positive,” Battle said after the loss to Vanderbilt. “I mean, we have plenty of losses this year. Plenty of ups and downs. But we still have a lot of basketball left. We have a tough stretch, we got to go to Kentucky, get a tough road win but we can still win that game and then the SEC Tournament. We still have a lot of basketball left.”

While those might be lofty expectations for Arkansas basketball, it’s encouraging to see that the team hasn’t given up on coming to compete – at least not externally. However, if things start to go in Kentucky’s favor early, the Hogs might not have enough fire left in them to mount much of a comeback. They’ll have to start fast if they want to stay alive in this game on the road. That, unfortunately, has not been a strong suit for the Hogs.

Kentucky will pick up the season sweep over the Hogs, scoring 90+ points for the third consecutive game.

Kentucky wins, 93-77

How to Watch Arkansas vs Kentucky

Date: Saturday, March 3

Location: Rupp Arena (Lexington, Ky.)

Tipoff Time/TV: 12:30 p.m. CT (CBS)

ESPN BPI: Kentucky has a 93% chance of winning, favored by 18.4 points.

KenPom: Kentucky has a 91% chance of winning, favored by a score of 91-76.


Yes, Devo Davis did just start his own YouTube channel:

YouTube video

Check out our recap from the first Arkansas vs Kentucky matchup this season:

Highlights from that game:

YouTube video


More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS… 

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