Hogs, Wildcats clash with pride, SEC seeding on the line

Arkansas senior Jaylen Barford / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

With every game the Arkansas Razorbacks win, the next one just gets bigger.

I’ve been writing that the last two weeks, but win or lose Tuesday night, I’m not sure if the next game will actually be bigger.

That’s because the Hogs play host to Kentucky at 8 p.m. in Bud Walton Arena for an ESPN-televised affair, and despite the fact the Wildcats have not had their usual season, this is a huge basketball game for the Razorbacks. The arena is sold out, and everyone should expect Razorback fans to show out for a game against Kentucky.

Arkansas vs. Kentucky

Date: Tuesday, Feb. 20
Time: 8 p.m.
Location: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Television: ESPN

» See full schedule

Why is this game bigger than the other three regular-season games?

Arkansas coach Mike Anderson would probably say it’s the next game on the schedule, and that’s how he and his players have to look at the game.

However, we’re just fans. We can look at the game any way we like, and even if this isn’t exactly a vintage Wildcats team, it’s still Kentucky, and beating them is special, if the Hogs are able to do it.

A victory over the Wildcats still stands out. The Hogs will garner national attention if they do pull off the victory.

Add that to the fact that any victory inches the Razorbacks that much closer to earning a NCAA Tournament bid. While it’s not a certainty, a victory tonight might be the very one makes an NCAA bid an election sure.

A loss would put more pressure on the Hogs to pick up a road win at Alabama or Missouri, and it might park the Razorbacks squarely on the bubble until selection Sunday.

The Razorbacks have made up a lot of ground during their four-game winning streak. Currently Arkansas is 19-8 overall and 8-6 in SEC play. That’s good enough to be tied for third or sixth place in the league with Missouri (18-9, 8-6), Alabama 17-10, 8-6), and Florida (17-10, 8-6) depending on how you look at it.

That grouping is three games out of first place, which is occupied by Auburn (23-4, 11-3), and one game out of second, which is occupied by Tennessee (19-7, 9-5). That’s important because the top four teams receive a double bye in the SEC Tournament, held March 7-11 in St. Louis.

The tournament should be highly competitive this season, which makes those double byes even more valuable.

Mathematically, the Razorbacks could overtake Auburn, but it would basically require the Tigers to lose four in a row and the Hogs to win four in a row. That’s unlikely to happen. There is also a scenario where the Hogs could tie Auburn, which is only slightly more likely.

A strong finish and the Razorbacks could tie or overtake Tennessee for No. 2, and by virtue of the Hogs 95-93 overtime victory back on Dec. 30, Arkansas would hold the tiebreaker.

The Razorbacks travel to Alabama on Saturday, play host to Auburn next Tuesday, and close out the season a Missouri on March 3. That’s a scary schedule for any team in the nation.

As for Kentucky (18-9, 7-7), tonight’s game is key in keeping the Wildcats on the right path going into postseason play. Kentucky posted an impressive 81-71 victory over Alabama, but the Wildcats had lost their four previous games to Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Auburn.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said his squad gave a few of those games away, and he wants that trend to end.

While their record may not look like what you’d expect, the Wildcats are long, lean and superbly athletic. They are skilled, but their calling card is playing smother defense. Their length makes it difficult to get shots off cleanly inside or out.

Kevin Knox, a 6-9, freshman forward, leads a balanced pack of scorers for the Wildcats with 15.6 ppg. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a 6-6 freshman guard, adds 12.7 ppg. with his backcourt mate 6-6 freshman Hamidou Diallo adds. 11.1 ppg. Quade Green, 6-0, freshman guard, adds 10.1 off the bench. Nick Richards (6-11 freshman forward) average 9.9 ppg.

Physically the Wildcats will be a tough squad for the Razorbacks to keep off the glass, although the Hogs had one of their best rebounding games of the season in their 94-75 blowout of Texas A&M last Saturday. The Hogs gang rebounded against the Aggies with seven Razorbacks getting at least three rebounds. Freshman forward Darius Hall led Arkansas with 7 rebounds, followed by senior Trey Thompson and freshman Daniel Gafford with 6 boards apiece. The Hogs all had 8 team rebounds, which is a good indicator of hustle. It will take another big effort by the Razorbacks on the glass if the Hogs hope to beat the Wildcats.

Gafford, who earned his third SEC Freshman of the Week honor on Monday, face his second test in the row against a tall, physical front line. He’ll need help from Thompson, Dustin Thomas, and Hall to mix it up inside.

As always the Razorbacks will need big nights from senior guards Jaylen Barford (18.6 ppg.) and Daryl Macon (17.0 ppg.). Both started their career in junior college but have scored prolifically enough as Razorbacks to be zeroing in on scoring 1,000 points in just two season of basketball. Barford needs 39 and Macon needs 57 points to reach the 1,000-point mark respectively.

The game has all the makings of a classic, particularly if the Razorbacks’ bench shows up like they did against Ole Miss and Texas A&M. This game should be a true test to see if the Hogs are actually pulling everything together at the end of the season.