Arkansas and Kentucky will meet Thursday night in a 6 p.m. game at Bud Walton Arena with both squads coming off disappointing road losses in which they had a lead late.
So you can expect both head coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks (9-8, 3-2) and John Calipari’s Wildcats (13-4, 3-2) to be focused in a game that is nearing a sellout and will be televised by ESPN.
“Every week the games get bigger, they magnify and of course we are playing against an outstanding Kentucky team,” Anderson said. “John continues to bring in tremendous talent, but they guys that he has held over from last year – Tyler Ulis, Alex Poythress, those guys kind of spearhead their team and they are a very talented team.
“We have our work cut out for us coming off after the loss to LSU (76-74) so we are looking forward to getting better.”
Calipari’s defending SEC champion squad has gone 2-2 in its last four games with a loss at LSU beginning that stretch - and neither team is as dominant this campaign after finishing as the top two in last season’s SEC race.
“We are still trying to figure it out,” Calipari said. “I think a lot of teams are in the same boat we are in where we don’t have a whole lot of margin of error.
“You are trying to really take guys to settle into roles and play in a way that is going to help our team win and yet have the competitive spirit that you are going after the guy you are guarding like you and him are in a battle as much as our team and their team.
“So we have got things to figure out and getting guys to be more consistent and what does that mean and how do we do that and what if they are not capable of that and then how do we play the game anyway. “
Auburn downed Kentucky 75-70 on Saturday in a game that drew the largest crowd of the season for the Tigers, just as Thursday appears it is going to be for the Razorbacks.
It is the first time Kentucky will have played at Bud Walton Arena since Michael Qualls’ dunk beat the Wildcats in 2014.
“Every road game for us is the Super Bowl,” Calipari said. “The guys who have been here know it. The young guys are finding that out.”
Anderson believes that Kentucky is one of the nation’s top squads even if it might not be as good as last season’s squad that ran through the regular season unbeaten and eventually fell to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
“It is a team that has been tested, beat Duke earlier in the year, beat Arizona State when they were playing well," Anderson said. "So again, it is a team that we know is very, very talented and we have to hold serve at home. We have to protect the home court.
“It’s Kentucky. That’s all you have to know is it’s Kentucky.”
Kentucky lost its top seven scorers from last season, but kept 5-9 sophomore point guard Ulis (14.4, 6.2 assists), 6-8 senior forward Poythress (9.6) and 6-9 junior forward Marcus Lee (7.7, 7.1).
The Wildcats added in talented freshmen in Jamal Murray (17.8), Isaiah Briscoe (10.7) and former Arkansas Wings AAU player Skai Labissiere (7.7, 3.2), a 6-11, 225-pound forward who has struggled to find his footing after being considered a top five high school player last season.
“You talk about the guys coming back, they are spearheading this team – Poythress and Ullis,” Anderson said. “The guy that is leading in scoring is Murray and he can get 30 points on you very, very easily.
“They still have the size with Marcus Lee, they look as deep as last year and obviously are very, very talented. But it is still Kentucky. I just think they are trying to find their identity, that chemistry and we are doing the same thing.”
Murray had 20 points, Ulis nearly had a triple double at Auburn with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists and 6-9, 225-pound junior forward Derek Willis 12 points and 12 rebounds in the loss.
“Winning time for us, we are up 20 against Mississippi State,” Calipari said. “We are up 12 against Auburn. We lose one, we should have lost the other. You think about that. Historical, my teams if you get up 10, it’s death for the other team. That’s not the case right now.
“And most of it is young guys not understanding winning basketball at crunch time, that juncture of the game. But that’s what we have got to work on and that’s why it is a process, the only way you get through it is experience.”
Calipari wishes that his whole team was playing to the level of Ulis.
“When you have a couple of guys that aren’t doing what they are capable off doing it puts him in a bad spot,” Calipari said. “He has to make plays or take shots that he shouldn’t have to take. But he wants to win so bad that he takes them anyway. He was disappointed in himself.”
Arkansas has a trio of the league’s top scorers in 6-10 junior center Moses Kingsley (16.9, 9.4), 6-3 senior shooting guard Anthlon Bell (17.1) and 6-3 junior guard Dusty Hannahs (16.0), who transferred from Texas Tech.
“They have got guys, the kid from Texas Tech comes in and all of a sudden he is one of the best scorers our league,” Calipari said. “You have the big kid (Kingsley) who does’t play much last year - all of a sudden he’s like a force.
“They still defend. They still play hard. But you have a couple of breakdown players who can go get them when they need them and all of a sudden you are talking about a team that is playing confident.
“From where they were early to where they are now, you might as well not even watch early tapes.”
Asked if he expected Kentucky to be more focused after a loss, Anderson noted that should be true of both teams.
“Well, they are going to be focused anyway,” Anderson said. “I think every game is a big game in conference play. I am sure Cal is just like me as he sees it as an opportunity to go steal one on the road.
“We are coming off a loss, too, and somebody has got to win."