Previewing Arkansas

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - It's been nearly four years since Arkansas last beat Kentucky.

That was 2000-01, when Arkansas coach Stan Heath was an assistant coach at Michigan State and Nolan Richardson was leading the Razorbacks. Now, almost four years later, Heath and the Razorbacks face another difficult challenge Saturday when the No. 7 Wildcats roll into Fayetteville. A victory over the visitors would guarantee the Razorbacks (14-5, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) a winning record in the regular season.

"Kentucky is probably playing the best basketball of anybody in our league," Heath said Thursday. "Their team is excelling in so many different areas, whether it be rebounding, defense, or forcing turnovers. I think that is their strength - they can just hit you in so many different ways."

But for the SEC-leading Wildcats (15-2, 6-0), defense continues to be their hallmark. Kentucky is holding opponents to a league-lowest 57.9 points per game and is ranked first in the SEC in turnover margin. Last Tuesday, the Wildcats defeated Tennessee 84-62. But the victory did not come without a price.

Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes, who averages 11.1 points per game, suffered a broken nose and will have to wear a protective mask against the Razorbacks.

"We are not sure how he will respond," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "I am not sure how much it will hamper his play. If anybody can handle pain and overcome things, Chuck Hayes can. He is a tough, hard-nosed kid."

The Wildcats took a day off from practice Wednesday, leaving itself only two days to prepare for an Arkansas team that hasn't played since its 95-59 drubbing of Auburn last Saturday. All week, the Razorbacks have concentrated on improving their rebounding, free-throw shooting and adjusting to a new lineup that offers more offensive options.

"We are getting better as a team," Arkansas center Darian Townes said. "We are preparing the final touches. "This is going to be a real big matchup against a team in the top 10. It's going to be a battle of the rebounds."

For most of the 1990s, Arkansas and Kentucky faced off in the premier game during the SEC basketball season, as the Razorbacks and Wildcats battled for supremacy in a league that was known more for its football powerhouses.

But in the years after Arkansas lost to UCLA in the 1995 NCAA championship game, other teams in the conference got better and the Kentucky-Arkansas matchup lost its luster.

It was, however, briefly a focus in 2002, when Richardson offered to allow Arkansas officials to buy out his contract after a loss to the Wildcats, and then targeted the media and some fans in a news conference outburst.

This will be the first year the matchup has been televised nationally since that game.

"For me I will take this game personal," Townes said. "Kentucky was beating teams I used to like when I was younger. I had this game in mind when I came to Arkansas."

Heath said he also had it circled on his calendar at the beginning of the year.

"It should be incredible. It has all the bells and whistles you want," he said. "You've got the fans and you've got TV. You have one team that is really, really good and one team trying to get there."

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