It's yet another bubble battle for Kentucky basketball as Arkansas visits Tuesday

John Clay, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Basketball

At this point of the season, for this Kentucky basketball team, it feels like every game is an NCAA Tournament play-in game.

Take Saturday night at Rupp Arena. Florida was in town for a bubble battle. Both the Cats and Gators were 6-3 in the SEC. Both were in the 30s in the NCAA NET rankings. By night’s end, however, John Calipari’s Cats had gained the upper hand by holding off young Todd Golden and his Gators 72-67.

Now comes Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. Rinse and repeat. Arkansas will be in town for another bubble battle. ESPN has the 9 p.m. tip. The Razorbacks’ regular-season résumé resembles the one Kentucky puts on paper. Both teams are 16-7 overall.

After a 1-3 start in league play, Kentucky has won six of its last seven games. The lone loss was to Kansas 77-68 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. After a 1-5 start in league play, Arkansas has won four of its last five games. The lone loss was to Baylor 67-64 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

While Kentucky was welcoming 20 points from cold-blooded Cason Wallace and 17 points and 10 rebounds from Jacob Toppin on Saturday to beat Florida at Rupp Arena, Arkansas was squeaking past South Carolina 65-63 for its first true road win of the season. Jalen Graham scored 16 points off the bench. Davonte Davis made four three-pointers. Anthony Black scored 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished four assists.

So on Sunday morning, Arkansas was listed as No. 29 in the all-important NCAA NET rankings, two spots in front of Kentucky at No. 31. According to the NET, Arkansas is 1-5 in Quad 1 games, i.e. its toughest games. Kentucky is 1-6 in Quad 1 games. Arkansas was ranked No. 27 by the mathematical mind of Ken Pomeroy. Kentucky was 34th.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Kentucky was No. 4 in the AP Top 25 preseason rankings. Arkansas was No. 10. Boasting an unusually experienced group, Kentucky was to make amends for last year’s first-round NCAA tourney loss to Saint Peter’s. After reaching the Elite Eight the last two seasons, Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks were to again be a serious Final Four contender.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Kentucky has struggled against marquee opponents. A huge win Jan. 14 at No. 5 Tennessee is its outlier. Arkansas has struggled with injuries. Trevon Brazile, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, tore his ACL after averaging 11.8 points and 6.0 rebounds through nine games. Nick Smith Jr., the No. 1 player in the 2022 class, according to 247Sports, hasn’t played since Dec. 17 because of a “right knee issue.” NBA executives believe Smith won’t wear an Arkansas uniform again.


Both teams have improved, however. UK’s Oscar Tshiebwe couldn’t buy a basket around the basket — the big man was 2-for-14 on the night — so it was Wallace who made the key plays that stopped the Gators. Meanwhile, Musselman’s men have been excelling defensively. They’re currently 13th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Pomeroy.

Calipari is 2-2 vs. Musselman since the well-traveled 58-year coach arrived in Fayetteville. Calipari won the first two. Musselman has won the last two. Tuesday is the first of two meetings this regular season. The second is the regular-season finale on March 4 at Bud Walton Arena. Tuesday is the most important of the two.

After all, ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi’s latest projections on Friday listed both Kentucky and Arkansas as No. 11 seeds with one crucial difference. Arkansas was among Lunardi’s “last four byes.” Kentucky was among Lunardi’s “last four in” with a ticket to a First Four game in Dayton.

“Certainly the preparation for Kentucky will begin immediately upon leaving the press conference,” Mussleman said Saturday in Columbia. “A lot of things we’ve got to get ready for in regards to Kentucky.”

“They don’t stop coming,” Calipari said on Saturday of the string of high-stakes matchups. “They’re one after another. So we’ve got another tough game Tuesday.”

Another play-in game.

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