Kentucky loss takes a bit of gloss off huge game for Razorbacks

Frank Martin and his South Carolina Gamecocks stole a little bit of the thunder from Saturday’s sold-out 3 p.m. clash between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Arkansas Razorbacks at Walton Arena.

The Gamecocks cashed in a buzzer-beating 3-point bank shot to knock off John Calipari’s Wildcats, 81-78, in Columbia Wednesday night.

Perhaps, you saw the play on the SEC Network as the game creeped into the time slot designated for the Arkansas-Vanderbilt game?

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Kentucky
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Current Record: 14-2 (SEC 3-1)

Remaining schedule

Jan. 22 – at Mississippi State
Jan. 25 – TCU
Jan. 29 – South Carolina
Feb. 1 – at Alabama
Feb. 4 – Auburn
Feb. 8 – at Missouri
Feb. 11 – at Tennessee
Feb. 15 – Mississippi State
Feb. 18 – at Florida
Feb. 22 – Missouri
Feb. 26 – Tennessee
Feb. 29 – at Georgia
March 4 – LSU
March 7 – at Texas A&M

Even though the Gamecocks (9-7, 1-2) had lost three games in a row going into the contest, Martin’s squads are always going to be hard-nosed and tough. South Carolina pounded and outplayed a complacent Wildcats squad in the second half to steal the game.

Sure, the Wildcats will still have their No. 10 ranking when they arrive in Fayetteville Saturday, but some of the gloss will be missing.

After a night of upsets in the SEC, the Wildcats (12-4) are like the Hogs (13-2), No. 4 Auburn Tigers (15-1) and the Florida Gators (11-5), who are stuck chasing 4-0 LSU (12-4) in the league race.

Man, does that 79-77 Razorback loss at Baton Rouge, La. sting ever more today.

Isn’t it wild that Will Wade hung on to his job at LSU last year after being suspended? The Tigers won the 2019 regular-season SEC crown while he was sitting at home and refusing to talk to his bosses. But for the time being, he has the Tigers back at the top of the league again.

Coupled with Monday night’s football national title, I have to begrudgingly admit that it must be great to be an LSU Tiger.

But I digress.

As I was saying, South Carolina stole some of the thunder for Saturday’s Razorback-Wildcat matchup at Walton Arena. Just five points separates the Razorbacks and Wildcats from being undefeated in the conference and playing for the SEC lead going into Saturday’s games.

Who knows how the league is going to shake out at this juncture of the season? This game could prove to be pivotal for the Hogs or the Wildcats or both as we move along.

Even if Kentucky doesn’t win the regular-season title, they are always a factor, and pinning a loss on them becomes a highlight for any opponent’s season.

The Wildcats just being the Wildcats made the game big enough for ESPN to select it for a prime Saturday afternoon spot, and while analyst Dick Vitale may not be the shining star of the college broadcasting game he once was, ESPN sending him to Fayetteville for the first time in a long time does stoke memories of when the Kentucky-Arkansas game had marquee value.

For a couple of seasons in the 1990s during the hey days of Nolan Richardson and Rick Pitino, CBS programed it as a lead in to the Super Bowl. It sure would be great to see those days return, and with the way the Razorbacks have responded to first-year coach Eric Musselman, it doesn’t seem so farfetched to think it might happen.

Musselman has worked wonders with a smallish squad that was picked to finish 11th in the SEC. It’s still early, and nothing has been decided, but with the tenacity, effort and discipline the Razorbacks display on the defensive end, it appears the Razorbacks are a legitimate contender in the league or at least a team that will finish in the upper fourth of the conference.

Musselman and his staff are also flirting with bringing in a top-five recruiting class in his first year on the job. That’s impressive.

There is some serious juice behind the Razorback basketball program at this moment, and the one thing that would further ignite fans’ euphoria and recruits’ interest would be the Razorbacks pulling off a win over Kentucky on Saturday.

The Wildcats may or may not work themselves into a national title contender — which is how Kentucky fans judge their team — but since joining the SEC, the only time the Razorbacks have gotten true national respect is when they have been good enough to not just go toe to toe with the Wildcats but also beat them.

Certainly, that has been the case this season.

The Razorbacks should have been ranked by the Associated Press after beating Indiana on the road at Assembly Hall. Their body of work should have earned that respect.

However, it seems the only way the Hogs will be ranked this season is if they knock off Kentucky on Saturday. It seems national voters are waiting on that.

Of course, toppling the Wildcats is easier said than done. South Carolina sneaking up on them Wednesday doesn’t make the challenge any easier.

Kentucky won’t only come into Walton Arena on Saturday as a bigger, taller, and more talented squad, but also one with a point to prove.

No doubt, Calipari will be working his motivational magic on the Wildcats after their woeful showing on the glass against South Carolina. The Gamecocks outworked the Wildcats for 20 offensive rebounds, and Alabama grabbed 16 offensive rebounds against Kentucky the game before.

Just on sheer size alone, the Hogs would have a difficult time on the glass against the Wildcats, but you can bet Kentucky will take a page out of LSU’s book and attempt to hammer the Hogs with four players going to the boards. And when properly motivated, Kentucky has the talent to do it.

As for the Razorbacks, we know they are going to defend that 3-point line, and hustle their butts off. They have done that without fail since Game 1 in November. What I’m eager to see is what kind of game plan Musselman and his staff specifically devise for the Wildcats, and just how well his Hogs can execute it.

As a Hog fan, I loved Richardson’s philosophy and audacity to say, “Were going to do what we do; you adjust.”

With his best and most instinctive teams, it was a thing of beauty.

However, it has been a true thrill this season to see how Musselman tailors what his Razorbacks do to their opponent and to watch for the adjustments he makes during the game. Beyond that, though, is how well the Hogs have generally executed those game plans and the adjustments.

You’d think Musselman had been working and grooming this team for a couple years with they way they execute, not just nine months.

I also appreciate how Musselman explains what the Razorbacks are doing to the media and through them to the fans.

Much like Eddie Sutton educated Arkansas’ fan base on Iba ball during his coaching tenure from 1974-85, Musselman lifts the veil on his NBA-flavored style, and he seems to enjoy taking the time to explain it.

This Hog team has me fired up about basketball in general, which hasn’t been the case in a number of years.

The Razorbacks’ 75-55 victory over Vanderbilt may have not been the most scintillating game of the season, but it was great to watch senior Jimmy Whitt Jr. score 30 points and set a new career high.

What a great addition to this team, and a fantastic return for a Hog who left for SMU after what he felt was a disappointing freshman season. He scores, he defends, he fixes things on both ends of the floor. He is a true Razorback do-it-all glue guy as a graduate transfer, much like Trevor Ezell was for the Razorback baseball team last year.

Sophomore forward Reggie Chaney also broke out of the dog house Wednesday after picking up that technical foul for punching the basketball out of bounds in the loss to LSU last week. Chaney had 14 points and 2 assists in 21 minutes. He only got two rebounds, but having his bigger body on the floor blocking out is a great help. If he can continue to play within himself like he did against Vandy, Chaney has a chance of making the Hogs even better.

Desi Sills also had an active night from his off-guard spot with 13 points and a scrappy 7 rebounds. The sophomore makes things happen on the defensive end, and he’s becoming more and more opportunistic on the offensive end of the floor.

Seeing Mason Jones score just a single point makes me feel a bit uneasy going into the Kentucky game. He wasn’t shooting well, and contented himself with grabbing seven rebounds and dishing out 8 assists in his point forward role. However for the Razorbacks to be at their best, Jones has to be a factor scoring the basketball.

Other than the Razorbacks’ obvious struggle with being undersized, the Hogs are also having some issues with the quickness they are seeing from lead guards in the SEC and shutting down their drives to the basket. LSU and Ole Miss capitalized at the rim with putbacks and drawing fouls.

That won’t go unnoticed by Calipari and other SEC coaches. No doubt Musselman sees it, too. It will be interesting to see how he combats it.

This Kentucky game presents a huge opportunity for the Razorbacks. Beating the Wildcats would turn heads, and add a measure of perceived validity to what the Hogs have already accomplished that the national media hasn’t credited to them yet.