Even before No. 21 Arkansas (26-7) booked its spot against unbeaten and No. 1 Kentucky (33-0) in Sunday’s noon SEC Championship game, it seems the Wildcats were already looking for motivation.
After Kentucky dispatched short-handed Auburn 91-67 in the day’s first semifinal, the Wildcats were making their way back to the locker room a tunnel away as the Razorbacks were getting hyped to take the court.
That involves junior guard Michael Qualls getting in the middle of the group and he and his teammates essentially forming a mosh pit.
Some Kentucky media reported that the Wildcats felt like this was trash-talking the nation’s No. 1 team - who beat the Razorbacks 84-67 back on Feb. 28.
“Every team feels they can’t back down from us, but it is easier said than done,” noted Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison.
Arkansas star Bobby Portis, whose team would go on to beat Georgia 60-49, and his teammates say that was not the case.
“We didn’t talk any trash,” Portis said. “That is just what we do to hype ourselves up before every game.
“We just push each other around,” Portis added. “We were just having fun. It’s all about having fun with basketball.”
That was the same sentiment offered up by Razorback sophomore guard Manuale Watkins, whose knows Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson and his dad - assistant Melvin Watkins - would not stand for that.
“We were just like ‘yeah, let’s go,’” Watkins said. “We were talking to ourselves. It was nothing directed toward them. They were walking by and smiling and saying ‘we’ll see you in the championship game.’ That’s all it was.”
Arkansas senior Rashad Madden also said there was no trash-talking, but did add something.
“We were just getting prepared for our game,” Madden said. “We didn’t even know if we were going to play them or not.
“But it is what it is,” Madden added. “We don’t like them anyway.”
• • •
Kentucky head coach John Calipari talked about his team's pursuit of perfection - something it has been able to achieve so far.
"Let's just be the best version of us," Calipari said. "If that's not good enough, what are you going to do? It's not best-of-five now. This stuff is all a one-game shot and you don't know what somebody is going to do. I'll live with the results if we're at our best."
• • •
Kentucky handled Arkansas fairly easy in Rupp Arena in Lexington and the crowd at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena will be dominated by Big Blue Nation on Sunday.
“We just want to come in and play basketball,” junior guard Anthlon Bell said. “We always play each game with a chip on our shoulder. Like Coach (Anderson) says ‘a log on our shoulder.’
“So we just come in and play hard,” Bell added. “We know we can get a good chance to beat them.”
Arkansas sophomore guard Michael Qualls, who led the Razorbacks with 17 points and 10 rebounds in the two team’s earlier game, knows that the game has to go different.
“We did play on our heels,” Qualls said. “We didn’t play tenacious. We didn’t get after it. That’s how we play. We are supposed to be a tough-nosed ten. We turned the ball over. We just didn’t play like we’re capable of playing.
“So I believe that if we come out and play like we are capable of playing, then everything else will fall into place,” Qualls added.
The Wildcats led by as much as 30 points in the earlier game.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well,” Anderson said. “And as our guys said, we played on our heels. I thought Kentucky did most of the attacking. Before you know it, it went just like that.
“For the first half, it just seemed like it was a Kentucky do what you want to do,” Anderson added. “In the second half, I thought it was a little bit better. But at the same time, they had the game well in hand.”
Anderson expects his Razorbacks to take their best shot at ending the Wildcats’ quest to go 40-0.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity, but it’s a tremendous challenge to play the best team in the country,” Anderson said. “….They (the Razorbacks) wanted to get to that championship game and our guys are going to go out there and leave it on the floor.
“I feel we are a much better team than when we played them earlier in the year,” Anderson added.
Qualls would like to cleanse his palate.
“They left a bad taste in our mouths, so we are not shying away from the moment, we’re not shying away from playing them,” Qualls said. “You just have to come out and and focus on us and how we can get better and just play Arkansas-brand basketball.”
Aaron Harrison drives to the basket during the game back on Feb. 28
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