NCAA Basketball

College Basketball Preview: Kentucky vs. Arkansas

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Following a stellar performance on Saturday, the Wildcats now venture to Fayetteville, Arkansas to face the Razorbacks. But, no matter the opponent, the question remains. Can the Wildcats get one on the road?

Like the rest of the West, the Razorbacks just aren’t that good of a basketball team. They enter Wednesday’s contest with a 16-10 record and are tied for third in the SEC West with Ole Miss at 5-7. Because of their struggles, former Wildcat and current Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey has faced a lot of criticism this season.

A lot of that criticism is based on their up-and-down play this year and in season’s past. He is 67-56 overall and 23-37 in SEC play in his four years, but you are talking about a program that is looking to win National Championships. Next year he brings in one of the top recruiting classes in the nation and hopes to get the team back to the Big Dance, but that is next year.

This is a game that Kentucky should win. Even if it’s away from Rupp. And it’s there second-to-last chance to win a legit road game, which could help build confidence entering tourney play. Following the game in Fayetteville, their lone road contest is in Knoxville.

Bud Walton Arena has always been a tough place to play. But, can Arkansas build momentum in the game to get the place rocking and create a difficult atmosphere?

One way to do so is get junior sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke (6-0, 184) going from deep. The kid can strait stroke it. He leads the team with 13.8 points-per-game and has knocked down 73 threes, while shooting 44-percent. He is also the fourth best free throw shooter in the league at 84-percent.

Simply put, the Hogs go as Clarke goes. When he is feeling it, they usually win. When he’s throwing up bricks, they don’t. As I mentioned earlier, Arkansas is 5-7 in league play. In their five wins, he has shot 57, 48, 56, 75 and 70-percent from the field. In their first six losses, he shot 14, 14, 0-3, 38, 30, and 27-percent. The lone outlier is their last defeat at Alabama on Saturday. In that game he scored 21 points on 4-10 overall shooting, but was 4-for-5 from beyond the arc and 9-for-11 at the line.

He has knocked down 256 threes in his career and he is the second fastest player in SEC history to reach 200 threes made. The fastest ever was Tennessee’s Chris Lofton.

The kid has limitless range and they run him off of a ton of screens to free him up. He has a great acceptance of screens and an unwillingness to stay covered, which drives defenders crazy. He simply knows how to move without the basketball and his quick, quick release allows him to get shots off even if he has barely created separation from his defender.

The Razorbacks rely on Clarke a lot in their offensive sets and from their win-loss totals in SEC play it appears that they may rely on him a little too much. But, it isn’t just Clarke they are relying on from deep. This is a team that needs to have multiple players knock down shots from beyond the arc for them to have a chance to win. They are third in the SEC with a 35-percent shooting percentage from three-land and have connected on 162, which ranks sixth. UK leads the league with a 40-percent clip from deep and their 203 threes on the year trail only Vandy.

For success, they also have to get production from their big guys in sophomore Marshawn Powell (6-7, 220) and senior Delvon Johnson (6-9, 220). And far too often these two players do not get enough touches for the Razorbacks.

Powell is an active player, who often comes up to the top of the key to set screens for Clarke. He will roll off of those screens and provide Clarke with a shoot-pass option. Even if he catches the ball in traffic he has the athleticism necessary to get the ball to the rim. He is second on the team in scoring with 10.7 points and is shooting 48-percent.

Johnson, a transfer from Western Illinois, is their third leading scorer with 9.7 points-per-game. When he puts the ball up it normally falls, as he is fifth in the conference, shooting 54-percent. He also ranks second in the conference with 3.3 blocks-per-game. Overall, this is a very good team at blocking shots as they rank third with 6.3 per game and in their contest on Saturday, Glenn Bryant came off the bench to record a quick two blocks and ending up with three in the first half.

Defensively, this is a team that has some length, but not a lot of bulk. They primarily play man-to-man, but I would not be surprised to see Pelphrey throw some zone at the Wildcats on Saturday. Their lack of bulk underneath has not only made it difficult for them to guard the post it has also resulted in a lack of rebounding. Their minus-3.2 rebounding margin is the worst in the SEC and in Saturday’s contest at ‘Bama, their inability to crash the defensive glass in the first half kept the Crimson Tide in the game because they had so many second chance opportunities. The Razorbacks eventually evened the rebounding numbers at 32 on Saturday, but it was their lack of rebounding that prevented them from building a lead at halftime. Alabama’s Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green combined for ten offensive boards in the game and most of their damage was done in the first half.

On offense, this is a team that lacks a true point guard and because of that they often look disoriented and are forced to throw up threes as the shot clock expires. They are best offensively when they get both Powell and Johnson involved, which allows them to have a threat to score the ball from the inside and outside. When they don’t, defenses know the ball is going to Clarke and are able to key in on him.

Remember, this is a team that relies heavy on the three-ball and besides Clarke, Kentucky needs to make sure they get a hand in the face of Marcus Britt, Jeff Peterson and Julysses Nobiles, all of which who have knocked down 18 threes or more and are shooting better than 35-percent. To free shooters, you will see them run a ton of weave action at the top of the key.

They will look to push the ball in transition and often look for shooters at the wing on breaks.

This is a streaky offensive team. They will go minutes and look like they may never score again and then a few possessions later look like a well oiled machine. Much as the season has been up-and-down, you will see the same thing in-game.

Because of their lack of a point guard, I look for the Wildcats to pressure them both in the full court and in the half court, in an attempt to create easy turnovers.

This is a game that Kentucky should clearly win. A win away from home should build momentum as they approach tourney play.

Kentucky 81, Arkansas 71