A Kentucky team that has recently righted its ship at home is now ready to visit Arkansas, whose ship has recently taken on some water while on the road.
The Razorbacks (17-11, 8-7) host the defending national champion Wildcats (20-9, 11-4) Saturday at a sold-out Bud Walton Arena in a 3 p.m. game that will be nationally televised by CBS.
"I think it will be a great atmosphere," Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said. "I think our fans are looking forward to it. I think our players are looking forward to it. The nation will get a chance to see a game that over the past years that I've been associated with, it was probably one of the more higher-viewed ones when you talk about the prelude to super bowl. Hopefully we can kind of create that kind of situation with this game.
"…We've been pretty good at home, our fans have been great at home. our kids have played well at home and we'll see how we respond," Anderson added. "But I think our guys are excited about playing. They're down right now, but they'll bounce back. They'll be ready."
Arkansas had won five of six games to move into fourth place in the SEC, but have now lost two in a row – at Florida and at LSU, where the Razorbacks rallied from 22 down and put themselves in position to win before faltering late.
"We've got to do it for 40 minutes," Anderson said. "t can't be for 20 minutes. You saw it 20 minutes in the Florida game where we played, I thought we played with a sense of urgency. And then we got a big hole in LSU and we dug back out of it, but where's that urgency from the get-go? That's where the coaching part has got to come in at."
Kentucky lost freshman center Nerlens Noel – the nation's leading shot blocker -back on Feb. 12th during a 69-52 loss at Florida.
The Wildcats promptly lost by 30 at Tennessee before steadying themselves and winning home games over Vanderbilt (74-70), Missouri (90-83 in OT) and Mississippi State (85-55) – who suffered its 13th straight loss.
"What I am trying to do with our team is stay in the moment," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. "I think we have gotten better and I am just trying to keep on that path."
Calipari has made some successful adjustments after the loss of Noel.
"We're opening up the court more, trying to play with a spaced court because we do shoot the three well," Calipari said. " It gives us lanes to the rim for layups. We're not full enough to play in a tight court and get to the basket. But that's one.
"Defensively, like I said, instead of funneling everything to Nerlens or (former Kentucky star) Anthony Davis, which is how we played, now we're playing more conventional defense on the ball, trying to take more charges and play that way."
Anderson has noticed how Kentucky's players have gotten over the initial shock of losing the young big man.
"I think they are getting over the initial shock of not having Noel in their lineup," Anderson said. "They are a balanced team with five or six guys in double figures and they starting to hit their stride at the right time."
The Wildcats are led in scoring by Arkansas native Archie Goodwin (6-4, 180), the freshman from Sylvan Hills who is averaging 13.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per contest while playing a team-high 31.6 minutes per game.
He has his spectacular moments this season, but also the normal rookie growing pains per Calipari.
"He's learning his way," Calipari said. "We are trying to figure him out and he is trying to figure himself out. He is too hard on himself, ala (former Memphis star, Calipari player and current NBA player) Derrick Rose. If he misses one shot, it leads to three more misses. If he turns it over, he can't defend on the other end. He hasn't put the emphasis on rebounding yet. But he is a freshman and he is doing well. He has gotten better as the year has gone on. But he needs to be opening up his mind and playing through mistakes, turnovers, being in better balance and control, slowing down your mind – it takes years to learn that.
"He is an unbelievable worker," Calipari added. "He's in the gym just about every night. He's the first one to practice and the last one to leave. He's got the work habits and the drive he needs to be successful. Now the totality of playing, the feel of the game – that takes maturity and time. It is a lot of trial and error. Right now there is a little bit of trial and there is a lot of error. That's part of being a freshman."
Goodwin is part of a starting five that also includes 6-7, 240-pund freshman forward Alex Poythress (12.0, 6.2), 6-2, 170-pound sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow (10.2), 6-2 senior guard Julius Mays (10.0) and 7-0, 244-pound freshman center Willie Cauley Stein (8.2, 5.7).
The Wildcats also have a couple of key reserves in 6-10,240-pound sophomore Kyle Wiltjer (11.0, 4.3) and 6-2 junior guard Jarrod Polson (2.9).
"I think Willie Cauley-Stein is really kind of the big guy for them," Anderson said. "He is pretty versatile. He is doing some things inside and I think their guard play is picking up. Archie is playing well for them. Mays is knocking shots down. He is really shooting the ball well and of course Harrow is the guy that has kind of managed the point.
"They have got some different pieces and those guys are starting to step up," Anderson added. "I think people now are getting the chance to see Alex Poythress. He is a tremendous player and scorer. A very versatile forward with size and athletic ability. Those young guys are starting to find their niche in becoming a better basketball team."
Arkansas is still in the hunt for post-season play and no doubt a win over Kentucky would help that cause, but Anderson says he is just thinking about one day at a time.
"I keep saying we're in the hunt for something," Anderson said. "I don't know what it is, but that's something ... The only thing we can control is, you know, our next practice and our next game. That's all I want these guys to worry about. And that's where their focus should be on.
"We just want to stay focused on one day at a time, and that's all I'm worried about," Anderson added. "Every team dreams to have a chance to win a national championship. Ours hadn't changed. Ours hadn't changed. Only way you're going to do that is you've got to be in it, so ... So, that's where our focus line it at right now. And I think if you play the games, you win the games and all those things will take care of themselves."
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