What to watch for in Arkansas-Kentucky

By: Scottie Bordelon Scottie Bordelon's Twitter account
Published: Friday, March 3, 2023
Arkansas' Jordan Walsh, left, is pressured by Kentucky's Chris Livingston (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Arkansas won 88-73. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
Arkansas' Jordan Walsh, left, is pressured by Kentucky's Chris Livingston (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Arkansas won 88-73. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas closes the regular season Saturday at home against No. 23 Kentucky.

The Razorbacks have lost back-to-back games against top-15 teams in Alabama and Tennessee and enter the weekend at 19-11 overall and 8-9 in SEC play. On the other side, the Wildcats won four straight inside the conference prior Wednesday’s home loss to Vanderbilt.

Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. on CBS. Here are a handful of things to keep an eye on:

• Oscar Tshiebwe vs. the Mitchells

Makhi and Makhel Mitchell teamed up for arguably the most impressive defensive performance of the season when the Razorbacks won 88-73 at Rupp Arena on Feb. 7.

The Rhode Island transfers combined for 13 rebounds, including 10 on the defensive end, 5 blocks and 1 steal. Makhel Mitchell in particular stood out as an individual defender, holding Wildcats players to 2 of 8 from the field.

Tsbiebwe, who can be one of the most overwhelming forces in the sport, was limited to 7 points and 7 rebounds in 32 minutes. Arkansas does not necessarily need to hold him to that final line again to earn its 20th win.

But the Razorbacks would like to slow the roll he has been on since the teams’ first meeting. In the last 6 games, Tshiebwe is averaging 20.3 points and 12.2 rebounds.

He finished with 21 points and 20 rebounds (10 offensive) against Vanderbilt.

“Whatever happened last game, whether a player has a great game or a player struggles, it’s kind of out the door,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said Thursday. “You look at Tshiebwe’s average, can you hold him under his average? That’s the goal with anyone we play who we deem a star player.

“Just under his average will be our goal with him in particular, as well as what we deem their other star players as well.”

Against Alabama and Tennessee, the twins allowed 10 scores on 21 field goal attempts as the nearest Razorbacks defenders. Each tallied three blocks in those games.

“There really weren’t any secrets. It was just the twins,” forward Kamani Johnson said Thursday. “They did a great job on him. They’re big, physical. I think they just matchup really, really well with (Tshiebwe).

“I have confidence that they’re going to duplicate it Saturday.”

• Can Arkansas keep Cason Wallace in check?

The talented freshman left Wednesday’s loss to the Commodores with around 18 minutes remaining with a left ankle injury.

“We haven’t done a lot of basketball activities (since the loss), period,” Kentucky assistant coach Bruiser Flint said Friday. “Usually after a night game, the next day we don’t do much on the floor. He’s just been getting treatment, and then we’ll see how it goes.”

Musselman and the Razorbacks expect Wallace to suit up and be a factor Saturday. He finished with a game-high 24 points against Arkansas last month behind a 9-of-14 showing on two-point attempts.

Wallace is gifted and can create his own offense rather effortlessly. Without point guard Sahvir Wheeler in the picture due to injury, he has taken on an essential role initiating sets in the half court.

The 6-4 guard is a handful working off of ball screens. The Wildcats are sure to run a quick-hitter in which Wallace swings the ball to one side of the floor and is immediately fed it back at the top of the key. From there, he uses a middle ball screen to try to get downhill.

He is more than capable of getting to the rim. But Wallace may be at his best when maneuvering to the midrange part of the floor for quality jumpers.

Arkansas must beware of his ball fake there, because he is great at getting trailing defenders to fly by before resetting and releasing a clean look with ample space. Staying down and forcing Wallace to spit the ball back out would be a win.

It will be interesting to see how the Razorbacks opt to defend that and similar actions. Wallace is 2 of his last 20 from three-point range. Might Arkansas choose to go under screens he plays out of?

• Davonte Davis’ role

Musselman had high praise for the junior guard after Arkansas’ win at Kentucky.

Davis played his role masterfully. Going in, he was charged with play-creating as a facilitator, and he wound up with a season-high 7 assists to go with 15 points on 6 of 11 from the field.

“Just really proud of his maturity and his game management,” Musselman said. “I thought his basketball decision-making was probably the best since I’ve been around him. He played to win the game.

“And he tried to do every possible thing that he could to help us.”

Flying somewhat under the radar as a result of consecutive losses, Davis is scoring the ball well again after a two-game stretch in which he added four points on three field goal attempts against Florida and Georgia. He added a season-high 21 points at Alabama and 13 at Tennessee.

A 6-of-11 run from deep powered those outings.

One would imagine he will draw the assignment on Wallace, too. In the first meeting, Davis held Kentucky players to 2 of 7 from the field and came away with 2 steals.

Davis has never shied away from a challenge in March. He has excelled many times. And Saturday offers a big opportunity for him to put his leadership and two-way value on display.

• What will Jordan Walsh provide?

Musselman on Thursday was asked what the Razorbacks did adequately to slow Tshiebwe last month.

Toward the end of his response, he made reference to the impact the 6-7 Walsh had against the Wildcats. He finished with 13 points on 4 of 4 from the field and 4 of 4 at the free throw line.

Kentucky was also 4-of-9 shooting against him, and Walsh added a block at the rim.

“He was really, really aggressive and had a big, big impact,” Musselman added. “That’s one of his best games of the year. He was aggressive. I think they kind of helped off of Jordan and he was really, really aggressive.

“We need Jordan Walsh to have that same aggressiveness as he did in Lexington.”

According to HoopLens, Arkansas scored 1.32 points per possession in Walsh’s 38 possessions at Kentucky and shot 77.3% on interior attempts. On the other end, the Wildcats shot just 16.7% from three when Walsh played.

In the last five games, the Razorbacks have allowed 0.92 PPP in Walsh’s minutes.

He was one of the few defensive bright spots at Alabama and Tennessee. Walsh tallied 5 steals and limited Crimson Tide and Vols players to a combined 4 of 18 from the field.

When Walsh plays well, there is a good chance Arkansas will, too.


Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.