Things have been less than ideal at both Arkansas and Kentucky this basketball season, with the losses mounting up each week. But, Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson still thinks the matchup at 11 a.m. Saturday between the Wildcats and the Razorbacks carries significance.
"It's a big, big game," Richardson said. "It's a marquee game. Don't say this is just another game, because that's not true. Both teams play hard against the other. It is different in that Kentucky is 8-5 and we are 5-8 ... a lot of losses ... but don't just say it's not a big game because it is. Throw the records out because it means a lot.
"It's still one of the biggest games of the year in my mind in the SEC season."
Richardson said he talks often with UK coach Tubby Smith, one of his best friends in the coaching profession. They are around each other in the offseason at different events. Smith always travels to play in Richardson's charity golf tournament, and graciously works Richardson's summer camp in El Paso, Texas.
"We visit as much as we can during the season, too," Richardson said. "So, I'm aware of what he's going through. It's been a tough year by their standards. For them, 18-7 is like going 0-30 at some places. They set their standards high. I see some of the same things for our program. We haven't met our standards. We both set lofty standards.
"I'll say this, I know that he and I both feel badly about that ... not reaching the standards. No one feels worse than the coach. It's like part of you dies. You don't sleep. We've talked about that.
"And, we've talked about how to deal with the media and the press. It's tough there right now. I do know that there are times when he doesn't sleep. We are trying to find a way to fix things and win. That's what we try to do, figure a way to win a game."
Both teams are coming off victories, and should be on an upswing for the game. The Hogs upset No. 5 Alabama on Wednesday night, with Richardson turning to a starting group that had only averaged 16 points a game.
"How many coaches would have done that," Richardson said. "Only one I know, and that's me. I'm a little different, I know.
"The key thing is that sometimes your best players don't make for the best team. Every player on the team is just one part of the team. It can't be a bunch of individuals. We had to make it a team again.
"I'm not afraid to try something different. The important thing is that we won the game, and built some confidence in what we were doing. It was all about going out and executing the offense and the defense and staying within the team concept. And, more than anything, we emphasized that we would guard someone.
"It had gotten to be that our team was about the jump shot, and not about guarding someone. Our best shooters weren't guarding anyone. I really didn't care if we missed some shots, as long as we took good shots and we guarded the other team. If we missed a shot, that was okay, because we weren't going to let the other team get a good shot. There were going to be some missed shots because we were going to guard you.
"I read where the Alabama coach said that they got the same shots they've been getting, it's just that they didn't make as many. I don't believe that. I watched the tape. They didn't get many good shots when they were shooting 12 percent in the first half. We guarded them. We were up on them, and we didn't allow penetration. It was solid defense, and we battled hard for rebounds. We fought and we didn't give up anything easy.
"I look back to the game at Alabama. Rod Grizzard caught it and was wide open. He had great open looks. He could drive it or shoot it. It wasn't like that last night the way Carl Baker played him. That was great defense."
Richardson said the Hogs changed system, going with a true numbering system for the positions, something he usually doesn't do.
"We had a one, a two, a three, a four and a five," he said. "We put players at positions, and that's why some didn't play. T. J. Cleveland was a true one, and he didn't come out, so the other ones didn't play much. Chuck Tatum was the two, and he didn't come out either. Baker was the three. We had Matt Jones at the four and the five, so he could rest either Larry Satchell, our five, or Alonzo Lane, our four. Matt was the swing player in there. He is the guy we have that can play the most positions inside, and the only one we have playing more than one on the perimeter is J. J. Sullinger and he plays the one, two or the three.
"In this system, we aren't going to press, at least right now. We will play in our nutshell defense, and deny penetration and contest shots, and we will double the post when the ball swings inside. We did that well last night and we were tough to play.
"I saw players buy into their roles and the fact that we were going to guard people. We didn't shoot well, but we got good shots. That's what I want to see, offensive execution. The inside players played hard because they knew they were going to get plenty of touches. With some of our guards, they wouldn't throw it inside. They were going to come down, and jack it up. We aren't going to play that way."
Richardson was asked about his famed 40 minutes of hell, and he emphasized that it was a creation of the media, and it wasn't a true reflection of how many of his best teams have played.
"The Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and Oliver Miller teams were halfcourt teams," he said. "We kept those three guys out there for 35 to 38 minutes in a lot of games. In our national title run, we rarely pressed. We played halfcourt. We did press against Duke when we fell behind 10, and we could press. But, many times we played all halfcourt because we had a big team.
"The media characterizes me as up-tempo and puts the 40 minutes tag on me, and that's fine. You need a reputation for publicity and we got that. But, in truth, I'm not married to anything. I change to fit the players. I think that is a true measure of a coach, when he can change. I played keep away when I was a junior high coach because that was a way that team could win. We had some 8-7 games. But, I don't like to play that way. But, I don't mind it if it helps us win.
"I just knew we weren't getting it done with the jump shot. We had to go with a blue-collar team and quit taking so many jump shots. Have we corrected everything ... probably not. But we look to be better off right now. I wanted to send the message ... we are not going to live and die with the jump shot.
"Larry Satchell and Alonzo Lane are still not great inside scorers. They just aren't. But, that's where we are going. And, Matt Jones can score inside. His hands are so strong. Those three ... and we'll try to work Dionisio Gomez in there, too, are going to touch the ball inside."
What will happen with Jannero Pargo, Teddy Gipson and Brandon Dean is up to those players.
"Will they buy into it and play this way?" Richardson said. "I think they will. But, if they don't, then I don't care at this point. I do care about them so I don't want anyone to misunderstand, but I don't care if they want to play this way or not. If they buy into guarding someone and taking good shots, then they will figure into it, too. They can play this way. I just had to change the way this team was playing.
"I wanted to play a pressing style because we had all the guards and that was a way to get everyone on the floor for a lot of minutes. But we couldn't hit any shots and we weren't guarding anyone. My jump shooters weren't guarding anyone. We had to change that, and this was the way.
"The key is that it is going to be done my way. The message is sent. You have to guard someone. How they react is up to them. I think they will react in a positive way. I want them to play in the confines of the offense and get the ba