Kentucky aims to hogtie second place in SEC against Arkansas


Kentucky Wildcats forward Jacob Toppin (0) hugs guard Davion Mintz (10) after the UK vs. Alabama mens basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 90-81. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Hunter Shelton

One final ranked opponent awaits No. 6 Kentucky on Saturday, Feb. 26.

The Wildcats will head to Bud Walton Arena for a weekend tilt against the surging No. 18 Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetteville.

After losing its first three conference games of the season, the Razorbacks have gone on a tear in SEC play, winning 10 of its last 11 games.

Some of Arkansas’ finer work includes wins over then No. 12 LSU in Baton Rouge, an overtime stunner against then No. 1 Auburn at home, followed by a defensive masterclass one week after against then No. 16 Tennessee. The Razorbacks hold victories over all three of the conference opponents who have defeated Kentucky this season.

Head coach Eric Musselman, who is in his third year at Arkansas, has propelled the Razorbacks to the upper echelon of the SEC.

The 2021 team finished the season 25-7, bowing out of the NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight, its first trip that far in the tourney since 1995.

Behind a team filled with depth, experience and physicality, Arkansas has once again separated itself from the middle of the pack in the conference.

JD Notae is the engine to the Razorbacks’ offense. Averaging 18.5 points per game, second in the SEC to Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen Jr., Notae is who Musselman wants with the ball in late-game situations.

The senior guard shoots 42% from the floor, including 32% from 3-point range. Playing every game this season for Arkansas, he is yet to be held below 10 points in a game. Notae has scored over 20 points on eight occasions in the 2021-22 season.

Fellow senior Stanley Umude follows the lead of Notae, averaging 11.1 points a night. The San Antonio, Texas native has taken a backseat to his backcourt mate, as he averaged a whopping 21.6 points in 25 games for the Razorbacks last season.

Arkansas’ starting guards boast experience in spades, both with and without one another on the court. The defensive prowess of the senior duo has propelled their team to the 16th highest defensive efficiency rating in the nation.

As a team, Arkansas allows just 67 points per game, the eighth best in the SEC.

Forward Jaylin Williams’ presence down-low is to thank for the defensive rating. The 6-foot-10 sophomore leads the Razorbacks in rebounds with 9.6 per game, second in the SEC to UK’s Oscar Tshiebwe.

Williams has also swatted 34 shots this season, good for sixth best in the conference. He carries the load in the paint for Arkansas, being one of just two forwards who play over 10 minutes a night.

A trio of guards round out the bulk of Musselman’s rotation.

Au’Diese Toney plays the third most minutes on the team, clocking in at 30.8 minutes a game. The senior meets the 10-point threshold while collecting 5.5 rebounds, the second highest on the team behind Williams.

Yet another senior in Chris Lykes is the heart of the Razorbacks as their sixth-man. After playing four years at Miami, Lykes made the move to Fayetteville, where he too has accepted a decrease in minutes and production, all for the greater good of the team.

While Lykes hasn’t scored double-digit points since Feb. 5, he brings a level of energy off the bench that is hard to match on any given night.

Davonte Davis rounds out Arkansas’ heavy-minutes group, tallying 8.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and three assists in 27.9 minutes per game.

As the season progressed, Musselman and his staff tweaked the starting rotation on numerous occasions, searching for the right combination to provide the most efficient outcome.

With March on the horizon, he has re-tooled his group to reach maximum output at the right time of the year.

Part of Arkansas’ success can be attributed to Bud Walton Arena. In 18 games at home, the Razorbacks own a 16-2 record behind the backs of one of the more raucous environments in the south.

Back-to-back weekends showcased the ability of the Hogs’ fanbase, as they willed their team to season-altering wins over Auburn and Tennessee. “Woo pig sooie” reverberates throughout the arena as over 19,000 fans cheer on their Razorbacks.

With the availability of both TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler in question, a tall task is awaiting the Wildcats on Saturday. Kentucky will not have the luxury of relying on Big Blue Nation like they did against Alabama.

As he did against the Tide, head coach John Calipari will insist on playing through Oscar Tshiebwe. The big man has proved to be unstoppable this season, and with not much help down low for Arkansas, Tshiebwe should once again put up his machine-like numbers.

Both UK and Arkansas will likely earn double-byes into the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, but Saturday’s ranked matchup provides an opportunity for both teams to prove a point down the stretch, especially if the two teams are to meet again in March.

Tip-off between the Cats and Hogs is scheduled for 2 p.m. EST on Saturday, Feb. 26.