Cats Hope to Hand Arkansas First Conference Loss at Home
This article appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Jon Hale. KY Forward's coverage of UK athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.
The UK men’s basketball players are no strangers to intimidating road environments.
UK head coach John Caliparirepeatedly reminds players, fans and media that the Wildcats are “everybody’s Super Bowl.” The team has already played in front of several packed houses this season.
Whether the Cats have mastered the art of playing in front of hostile crowds will be put to the test Saturday at Arkansas, where the Razorbacks are already a formidable opponent, even against opponents who might better be described as a NFL preseason game than a Super Bowl.
“You got to get hit in the mouth a little bit and see how guys respond,” Calipari said. “That’s why you play these kind of games. It’s a tough, tough challenge for us going in there.”
The Razorbacks are 16-1 at home on the season and 7-0 at home in Southeastern Conference play. The league’s two highest rated RPI teams, Florida and Missouri, have both already lost in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks are just 2-12 on the road this season.
Arkansas is averaging 82.4 points per game at home, compared to 61.5 points per game on the road. The Razorbacks’ opponents are averaging 64.2 points per game at Bud Walton Arena and 72.5 points per game in other venues.
Despite the Razorbacks’ success at home this season, the game versus UK Saturday marks just the second announced sellout at Bud Walton Arena this season.
Senior guard Julius Mays thinks the Cats will need to not not let the crowd dictate how they play or make them desperate.
“It’s going to be a game of runs,” he said. “They’re going to go on their run. We’re going to go on our run. It’s really about those last give minutes, who’s going to make the toughness plays. That really determines who comes out on top.”
UK has experienced some success on the road this season with wins at Vanderbilt, Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, but the Cats have also dropped road games against some of their better competition like Notre Dame, Louisville, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee.
The Cats lost their last two road games — at Florida and Tennessee — by a combined 47 points.
Still, sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow is confident his team has proven itself away from Rupp Arena.
“We’ve done really well on the road except for those last two road games, so we’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing and prepare today and just be ready to play tomorrow,” he said.
Arkansas will also represent another difficult task for the UK guards, who have been improving as of late.
The Razorbacks, playing Mike Anderson’s renowned pressure defense, rank No. 3 in the country in turnover margin (6) and No. 18 in steals per game (9.07).
“There’s no rhyme or reason sometimes why they’re trapping or why they’re switching or what they’re doing,” Calipari said. “It’s trying to speed up the game and trying to be aggressive. So you’ve got to play with instincts more, and historically our teams have been fine doing that. We’ll see in this environment how we do.”
Harrow is averaging 15.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and just one turnover per game in his last three contests. Mays is averaging 17.5 points per game in his last two games. Freshman Archie Goodwin, a Little Rock native who will be playing in his home state for the first time as a collegian, has reached double-digit scoring in three straight games after a stretch of three contests where he averaged six points per game.
“Everybody’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Mays said. “We’re all going out and doing what we can do.”
Calipari knows his guards will play a major role in the outcome Saturday.
“In college basketball, guard play probably dictates where your team is going,” he said. “So our guards have played better, we have played better. This will be an environment where they’ll be able to see what they’re about.”
A win at Arkansas could help the Wildcats secure a bid for the NCAA Tournament, but Harrow maintains they are not looking that far ahead.
“If we just keep doing what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be in the tournament,” he said.
Written by Jon Hale
Photo: Ryan Harrow handles the ball against Mississippi State this week/Jon Hale