Arkansas strengthens tourney hopes with sweep of Kentucky
When you’re a team on the bubble, you need a differentiator, something that sets you apart from the other bubble teams. You need something that will jump off the page and shine brightly when the selection committee convenes three Sundays from now. Arkansas got its differentiator on Thursday night.
It wasn’t always pretty — in fact it was rarely so — but the Razorbacks went into Lexington and earned a season sweep of Kentucky, knocking off the Wildcats 71-67 in overtime. Michael Qualls had 14 for Arkansas, while Rashad Madden had 12 and Coty Clarke had 11.
The tape of this game isn’t going to be sent off to Kansas City for enshrinement in the College Basketball Hall of Fame any time soon. The teams combined for 38 turnovers, and even that doesn’t communicate how choppy the pace was at times. It seems trite to say that the simplest thigs can make the difference in a game this close, but that proved true on Thursday. Arkansas knocked down all 16 of its free throw attempts, while Kentucky went 12-22 from the stripe. In a game where one point could have made the difference in regulation, the Wildcats’ season-long bugaboo again reared its ugly head.
Arkansas built a 10-point lead about 13 minutes through the first half, and was able to maintain a comfortable advantage until the under-12 timeout in the second half. The Wildcats turned it around, however, going on a 14-2 run to take a 57-52 lead with just less than five minutes remaining. Madden stepped to the line with the Razorbacks down by two with 30 seconds left and, as he did all night, knocked down both of his attempts, ultimately forcing the game to overtime. Clarke kicked off the scoring in the extra frame with a three-pointer, and the Razorbacks wouldn’t trail the rest of the night.
Outside of the play of Willie Cauley-Stein, who had 16 points and 13 rebounds, there aren’t any positives for Kentucky to take from this game. Their guard play was terrible, as the Harrison brothers and James Young combined to shoot 11-39 from the floor with 11 turnovers and six assists. They continue to shoot themselves in the foot at the free throw line, and somehow had just 19 second-chance points despite 22 offensive rebounds. Their best win is at home over Louisville, and they’re 2-4 against the top-50 teams in RPI. Barring an SEC tournament title that includes a win over Florida, they look like a No. 6 seed, at best, in the NCAA Tournament.
It stands to reason that the SEC will get at least three teams in the field of 68. Arkansas now owns two wins over Kentucky to go with a neutral-court victory against Minnesota and a home win against SMU. They’re 4-5 against the top-50 RPI teams, with three of those five losses coming away from Fayetteville. Missouri and Tennessee look like teams with the strongest cases alongside Arkansas, but they don’t have the caliber or quantity of good wins the Razorbacks have. Missouri has one top-50 win, was swept by Georgia and lost to Alabama. Tennessee was swept by lowly Texas A&M, and has just two wins in the top 50. When you’re on the bubble, you need to give the committee a compelling reason to include you in the field. It’s far easier just to shut the door and wish a team well in the NIT. The Razorbacks, by virtue of their sweep of Kentucky, have given the committee a reason to extend an invite to the only tournament that really matters.