What to watch for in Arkansas-Kentucky

Arkansas junior Davonte Davis takes a three-pointer against South Carolina on Feb. 4, 2023, at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.

FAYETTEVILLE — Fresh off its first road win of the season Saturday at South Carolina, Arkansas’ men’s basketball team is on the road again to begin the week.

The Razorbacks are set to play Kentucky at 8 p.m. on Tuesday in Rupp Arena. The Wildcats have won six consecutive games in SEC play, and Arkansas has won its last four.

Here are a handful of things to watch for in the game:

How Arkansas handles Tshiebwe

The Razorbacks were tested on the backboards against Gamecocks 7-footer Josh Gray. He finished last Saturday’s game with 20 points and 14 rebounds, including 7 rebounds on the offensive end.

His efforts corralling South Carolina misses helped it tally 12 second-chance points, which were part of the equation in the Gamecocks’ comeback bid. Arkansas’ challenge around the rim ramps up several notches Tuesday.

Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning national player of the year, leads the country with 13.6 rebounds per game. Purdue center Zach Edey is the only other player in the sport averaging more than 13 boards.

According to KenPom data, Tshiebwe is third nationally in offensive rebound rate, grabbing 18.7% of Kentucky’s misses when on the floor, and sixth in defensive rebound percentage (29.7%). He averages 16.4 rebounds per 40 minutes played in the SEC.

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said Tshiebwe “plays volleyball” with offensive rebounds. Even at 6-9 and 260 pounds, he is light on his feet around the rim and beats many opposing forwards to misses with quick second, third and fourth jumps, and strong hands.

Arkansas this season is better equipped than last to match up with Tshiebwe. The Razorbacks have multiple bodies in Makhi and Makhel Mitchell to throw at him, and both players bring a physicality that can combat Tshiebwe’s aggressiveness. It would not surprise, either, if Kamani Johnson, who is wired to rebound, is called on for a stint or two.

Tshiebwe last Saturday was held to four points — tying a season low — against Florida behind a great showing from Gators forward Colin Castleton.

Defensively, he is not a high-volume shot blocker (5 in 10 SEC games), so Arkansas may be able to go at him in 1-on-1 when opportunities arise. Kentucky has allowed opponents to make 50.2% of their two-point looks with him on the floor inside the conference, per HoopLens data.

But he can utilize his quickness to come up with steals. Tshiebwe has 3 three-steal games in conference play.

The Razorbacks’ attention to detail and energy level on the glass may very well dictate how the game plays out.

Three-point shooting

During its 1-4 start to SEC play, Arkansas shot the three at an abysmal 23.3% clip. The Razorbacks, though, seem to have turned a corner in that category.

In their last five league games, they have hit 36.1% of their attempts. It has a played a large role in Arkansas upping its offensive efficiency of late to 1.04 points per possession — up from 0.95 PPP in the opening five games.

Davonte Davis has been as critical to this run as any player. The mid-season flip in his perimeter shooting is one of the more fascinating developments of Musselman’s tenure.

Davis will enter Tuesday’s game in a tie for the fifth most made threes in league play (20). He has knocked down 40% of his three-point looks through 10 games.

The junior guard has made 16 of Arkansas’ 30 threes in the last 5 SEC games. A continuance of timely shot-making from Davis — and assistance from a teammate or two — would give the Razorbacks more than a chance to earn a second straight road win.

“(Davis) has been playing ridiculously in the last four games,” Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua said Monday.

Kentucky has multiple three-point threats to contend with. The Wildcats are No. 2 in league play with a 34.7% mark from deep. 

Antonio Reeves, an Illinois State transfer, is 21 of 50 (42%) beyond the arc in SEC games. And freshman Cason Wallace is shooting 41.1% for the season, though his numbers are down in the conference — 13 of 44 (29.5%).

Iowa transfer CJ Fredrick has also made 13 threes on 41 tries in the SEC. He was 3 of 6 beyond the arc in Kentucky’s win over Florida.

“You've got to ID him as he crosses half court,” Musselman said of Reeves. “He's a really good transition three-ball shooter. He and Fredrick both stretch the defense out because of their ability to score the basketball. He can get really hot. Streaky shooter, a guy that was a focal point offensively at his prior university and a go-to guy prior to coming to Kentucky.

“Now he's kind of evolved into a guy that they need points from.”

The Wildcats have not been a high-volume three-point attempt team (13 per game) since taking 32 against Texas A&M on Jan. 21. But they have made 36.5% of those attempts in that four-game span.

Bench production

Arkansas last week in wins over Texas A&M and South Carolina received solid play from pieces off the bench.

The Razorbacks got 17 and 20 points, respectively, from reserves. Freshman wing Jordan Walsh was the bench boost against the Aggies with 12 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal.

And in Columbia, S.C., transfer forward Jalen Graham pitched in 16 points on 8 of 10 from the floor. Walsh, once again, showed well and led Arkansas with 10 rebounds, including six on the offensive end.

Kamani Johnson, who played only one minute last Saturday, recorded a block, as well.

Musselman said bench scoring was the difference in the game at South Carolina. Arkansas has essentially settled in on a seven-man rotation, with the eighth player varying based on game flow, needs and matchups.

Walsh has averaged 30 minutes, 8 points and 8.5 rebounds — 9 total offensive boards — last week off the bench. He could be in line to start against Kentucky to better help the Razorbacks match up length-wise.

If not, he may be able to provide a jolt as he did last week. Graham could, as well, but the concern is rebounding.

Arkansas gave up 1.12 PPP with Graham on the floor against Texas A&M and South Carolina, and allowed them to grab 51.4% of their missed shots. That figure was 36% when he sat.

Cason Wallace’s impact

On Saturday in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks will face the reigning SEC player of the week in Mississippi State forward Tolu Smith.

They will begin the week by going up against the reigning SEC freshman of the week in Wallace, a prized recruit in the Wildcats’ last recruiting class. He received the honor Monday despite not playing in one of Kentucky’s games last week.

The 6-4 Wallace returned from a 1-game absence due to injury and finished with 20 points on 7 of 10 from the floor, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks and 1 steal against Florida. He is averaging 10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1 steal per game in the league.

“Early on in the season he wouldn’t say a lot. He would just listen,” Antigua said Monday. “As he’s gotten more comfortable in his own role on the team, being able to communicate and talk with teammates and share his leadership, it’s been something this team has needed.

“His voice is needed, as well, and it’s impactful and important.”

Wallace scored 7 of Kentucky’s last 11 points against the Gators, and Florida coach Todd Golden said the guard “beat the scout” by making tough shots. He made a handful of mid-range jumpers in the game.

Wallace is gifted offensively, but he can have true two-way influence. Musselman labeled him as one of the best defenders in the country.

Wallace is sixth in the SEC in steals with 44, and No. 16 in league-only games with a 3.3% block rate, per KenPom data.