Earlier this summer, CBS’ Garry Parrish shared a random sports stat that blew his mind every time he thought about it:
“Arkansas made the Sweet 16 in 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996 — six times in a seven-year stretch. The Razorbacks haven’t been back since.”
To this, Kentucky Wildcats fan Kevin Daugherty Tweeted: “As a Kentucky fan, those ’90’s era Nolan Richardson Arkansas teams put the fear of God in me….those games were epic.”
The first time Arkansas ever played Kentucky when both teams were in the SEC, the Hogs went to Rupp Arena and handed it to the ‘Cats:
Arkansas and Kentucky traded blows through much of the ’90s, with each side capable of KO’ing the other. A true rivalry was born.
In the decades since then,, that once molten rivalry has cooled off. Arkansas lost its way in the Stan Heath and John Pelphrey eras, and finished second to Kentucky all too often in the best Mike Anderson seasons.
Considering Arkansas hasn’t beaten UK since 2014, it’s gotten to the point where some Kentucky fans (like a commenter here) don’t even consider Arkansas-Kentucky as a legit rivalry anymore. Fair enough. They’ve had their break from the Hogs.
Come 2021, a whole new generation of the Big Blue Nation is going to learn what it means to experience the “fear of God” when an Arkansas team comes to town.
When Arkansas star Isaiah Joe recently announced he was returning to Arkansas for his junior season, it locked into place the final, most crucial element of a team that will challenge Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida for the SEC title.
The dream continues??? pic.twitter.com/yY0mUsw8Lh— Isaiah Joe (@Isaiah_joe10) August 1, 2020
Joe returns as Arkansas’ most experienced player, a savvy defender and leader who is also arguably the best three-point shooter in the nation. (He shot more than 44% on NBA-distance three pointers in 2019-2020, despite being injured for nine games.) No longer hindered by that knee injury which hampered his progress in other parts of his game, expect Joe to shine alongside Moses Moody and Vance Jackson as the Hogs’ brightest offensive stars this season.
“He’s probably going be the preseason SEC player of the year,” Barstool Sports’ Bobby Reagan said today on Hit That Line. Reagan, a Kentucky native, added that Joe is also a potential preseason All-American.
“Arkansas fans should be excited about this season,” he said. “You kind of have the ideal role players” for Isaiah Joe with a great recruiting class and transfers. “Muss is one of the best coaches in the country at getting guys to blend together in a short amount of time.”
The early preseason Top 25 polls concur.
In most of them, Arkansas is ranked in the 20 to 25 range. Here’s what Garry Parish, who placed the Hogs at No. 24, wrote for CBS in early August:
“Arkansas’ 20-12 record last season was misleading because the Razorbacks were actually 19-7 with Isaiah Joe in the lineup and just 1-5 without him. He was a real difference-maker. So it was big when the 6-5 guard withdrew from the NBA Draft just before the deadline. And now the Hogs are set to bring back two of their top four scorers and enroll a top-10 recruiting class that features four four-star high school prospects – most notably Moses Moody – plus Indiana grad-transfer Justin Smith and Northern Kentucky grad-transfer Jalen Tate. So while the early departure of Mason Jones is less than ideal, Eric Musselman should still have Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament and positioned to maybe make the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996.”
And here, by the way, it what he wrote for No. 15 Kentucky:
“The Wildcats are losing the top six scorers from a team that won the SEC by multiple games – most notably SEC Player of the Year Immanuel Quickley and projected first-round pick Tyrese Maxey. That’s rough. But if any program is built to overcome these departures, it’s the one set to enroll the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class featuring 5-star guards Terrence Clarke, BJ Boston and Devin Askew. Exactly what John Calipari will do to further enhance his roster remains unclear. But it’s possible the Wildcats could creep back into the top 10 of the Top 25 And 1 before the season begins if the UK staff secures some solid reinforcements.”
In the past 20 years, Arkansas has occasionally crept into the Top 25 a few times. But that hasn’t been enough to reignite a full-scale whupping of Kentucky and set the series on fire once again.
Why are things any different this time?
Three major reasons:
Since the 2000s, Calipari has had the luxury of unleashing UK teams which have had the overall clear talent advantage over Arkansas (and plenty other schools, too).
This year, sure, the Wildcats are loaded once again with their usual bevy of four and five-stars. But now Arkansas is very close in terms of overall talent, as it counters with its on freshman class of four-star talents in Moses Moody, Jaylin Williams, Devo Davis and KK Robinson.
Transfer Vance Jackson, a point forward at 6’9″ and 238 pounds, is a former Top 50 player himself. And of course Joe projects to produce more than most former five-star college players out there.
Almost every year in the Calipari era, Kentucky has had the clear height and wing span advantage against Arkansas. This invariably leads to more rebounds and points around the basket:
Average height of Kentucky basketball teams under Calipari— UK Cat Facts (@UK_CatFacts) October 24, 2017
Those are really tall averages, folks. When you average more than 6’7″ per player, you’re taller than most NBA teams too.
This year, Kentucky’s non-redshirting scholarship players will either average 6’6.5″ or 6’7″, depending on whether new Wildcat Olivier Sarr, a 7-foot transfer from Wake Forest, gets a waiver to play or not.
This season, for the first time in a long time, Arkansas will be just as tall and long as Kentucky with an average height of 6’6.5″.
These are the tallest Hogs of the 21st century, led by 7’3″ Connor Vanover, the tallest player in Arkansas history, and multiple 6’8″/6’9″ players like Jaylin Williams and Vance Jackson, as well as rangy 6’5″-6’6″ guards in Isaiah Joe and Moses Moody (who will likely lead the team in minutes):
Plus, 6’7″ Justin Smith has a 48″ vertical, which has to be good for an inch or two of actual height.
Let’s not kid ourselves here: Kentucky’s top freshmen BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke are going to be stars. One of them may even challenge Joe for SEC Player of the Year. With explosive athleticism, length and shooting touch, Boston and Clarke present skill sets that no single Razorback can match.
That being said, both 6’8″ ish shooting guards/small forwards are undeveloped from a physical standpoint. They both weigh under 200 pounds and will sometimes get manhandled by older, stronger SEC opponents — in the same way Isaiah Joe took his lumps as an undeveloped freshman.
On top of that, both Boston and Clarke are streaky shooters. Against inferior high school competition they have both shown a tendency to force step-back three-pointers.
Expect Eric Musselman, who’s now gets to scheme with a team of immense defensive potential, to minimize the effectiveness of Boston and Clarke by forcing them toward low-percentage shots under physical duress. He’ll throw 6’5″ Jalen Tate, the reigning Horizon League defensive player at the yea, at them, along with Vance Jackson and Justin Smith, another strong defender. All three of those Razorback transfers have the physical strength and quickness to give Kentucky’s star duo headaches.
Then, as they’re tiring out, Musselman can trap them with 6’5″-6’6″ dervishes in Devo Davis, Moses Moody. Expect Isaiah Joe, who’s a master at drawing offensive fouls, to get a few against UK’s star freshmen.
This season’s game will be at Rupp Arena.
Usually, that’s a clear advantage for Kentucky.
But this season, in the midst of a pandemic, UK likely won’t have the same home-court swagger. That’s because it’s likely the SEC, taking a page from the NBA, will likely limit or altogether bar fans from attending games in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Barstool Sports’ Bobby Reagan said college basketball followers should expect to watch games on TV only: “I would bet heavy money that we don’t see fans this season.”
This plays right into Arkansas’ hands in 2020-21, and is another reason why the Hogs will at long last rout the Wildcats again.
For more on Isaiah Joe’s game and his projected role in 2020-21, see this:
Doubt Joe is the nation’s top shooter? Strong evidence to the contrary at 5:55 below in this new shooting drill tutorial: