'Hawgs-Cats Rivalry Back?

FAYETTEVILLE -- One of the first signs of expectations rising for Arkansas this season came in August when the basketball schedule was released.

For the first time in three seasons, Arkansas' annual matchup with Kentucky returned to a featured spot on CBS.

Arkansas-Kentucky was once one of the premiere rivalry games in the country following the Razorbacks' entry to the Southeastern Conference in 1992.

Arkansas shook up the SEC pecking order by beating Kentucky four straight times in the regular season from 1992-95 and was the class of the conference with the 1994 NCAA title and its runner-up finish in 1995.

Both were ranked in the top 10 three times as a weekend fixture on CBS and it occasionally earned billing as a healthy appetizer on Super Bowl Sunday.

"You always knew it was a going to be a tough game," said sophomore and Fayetteville native Ronnie Brewer. "Kentucky always came in ranked pretty high, so did Arkansas.

"Kentucky always had a lot of players who were future NBA players. They had a great coach. So did Arkansas. So you knew it was going to be a tough, hard-fought, quality game."

The quality game has been lacking from the Arkansas end in recent years while Kentucky maintained its elite status and won the NCAA title in 1998 during Tubby Smith's first season succeeding current Louisville coach Rick Pitino.

Since that season, the Razorbacks haven't been ranked when the two met and Arkansas has lost its last four to Kentucky by an average of 13.5 points.

While the Razorbacks rebuilt and went 21-35 in the past two seasons under coach Stan Heath following former coach Nolan Richardson's firing, the formerly marquee game was relegated to a midweek matchup on Jefferson-Pilot.

The Razorbacks (14-5, 2-4 SEC) will try to prove worthy of their return to a national network audience at 2:30 p.m. today in Bud Walton Arena when they host the No. 7 Wildcats (15-2, 6-0).

Arkansas is 0-3 against ranked teams this season with losses to No. 1 Illinois (72-60), No. 14 Alabama (64-61) and No. 20 Mississippi State (80-55) and Heath knows it is time for his young team to finally break through with what would be the biggest win of his and their Arkansas careers.

Heath has beaten two ranked teams in each of his first two seasons with wins against No. 22 Alabama and No. 20 Mississippi State in 2003 and against No. 22 Vanderbilt and No. 25 South Carolina in 2004, all in Fayetteville.

After losing four SEC games in a row before beating up on Auburn 95-59 last Saturday, Arkansas' fate in its next two road games at South Carolina and Ole Miss could hinge on the outcome today.

"We've beat ranked teams before and obviously I have in the NCAA Tournament," said Heath, who guided Kent State to the Elite Eight in 2002 before taking the Arkansas job. "It would be a big win for this team in this particular season. It would do a lot for us.

"You never know how this could jump-start us and redirect the rest of your season."

No current Razorback has ever beaten the 'Cats, but senior Mike Jones was close.

As a redshirt in 2001, Jones had a good view from the bench when Jannero Pargo drained a 3-pointer in Keith Bogans' face to give Arkansas a 82-78 win in Fayetteville for the Hogs' second straight win against Kentucky and their last since.

Including his two-year stint at Georgia from 1995-97, Smith is 1-3 against Arkansas in Walton Arena with his first win in Fayetteville coming during Heath's first season.

"Any time you go to Bud Walton, they have some of the best fans in college basketball," Smith said. "Stan and his staff, even though they are a relatively young team, they are growing and maturing with each game."

Jones -- the lone Razorbacks senior -- has never scored more than two points against Kentucky, but he's averaged 11.3 in his last three games and will start against the Wildcats for the first time in his career today.

"This is what every college player lives for," Jones said. "If you can't get ready for this, I don't know what game you can get ready for."

A Little Rock native, Jones grew up watching Arkansas and Kentucky give each other fits in the 1990s but said the past means little today.

"I just remember the wars and battles," Jones said. "Arkansas-Kentucky has history not only with the teams, but with the fans. They go at it in the crowd with each other. This game has a lot of history, but we're not looking at all the history.

"We're trying to go out there, execute as much as we can, play as hard as we possibly can and do all the little things because that's what's going to help us win this ball game."

Today's game matches the top two defenses in the SEC as it often has in this series. Kentucky leads 14-7 since Arkansas joined the league.

"We have to get easy baskets and push it," Heath said. "We're going to pressure them and they're going to pressure us. Our style of play simulates the way they play. We haven't played as well as they've played, but there's a lot of similarities to the way they play and the way we play."

Arkansas and Kentucky are ranked 1-2 in scoring defense (Kentucky, 57.9, Arkansas 61.9), field goal percentage allowed (Arkansas 38.6, Kentucky, 39), blocks (Arkansas, 6.1, Kentucky, 5.1), steals (Arkansas, 10.1, Kentucky, 9.6) and turnover margin (Kentucky, plus-6.8, Arkansas, plus-4.4).

"We're going into a game that will present some problems because we know Arkansas is a very good defensive team," Smith said. "They're one of the best defensive teams not only in the conference, but in the nation."

Both have nine players averaging double figures in minutes and each start a freshman center.

Kentucky McDonald's All-American Randolph Morris is averaging 8.5 points and 3.9 rebounds and Razorbacks frosh Darian Townes is scoring 8.6 per game and grabbing 4 boards.

The Wildcats' most experienced players are leading scorer Kelenna Azubuike (14.4 ppg), a 6-foot-5 junior guard, and leading rebounder Chuck Hayes (9.1 rpg, 11.1 ppg), a 6-6 senior forward who will play today with a protective face mask after breaking his nose Tuesday at Tennessee.

Kentucky's perimeter group is made up of junior transfer Patrick Sparks (11.9 ppg, 4.8 assists/game) and freshmen Rajon Rondo (8 ppg, 2.6 steals/game) and Ramel Bradley (4.6 ppg).

Heath will keep his starting lineup of Brewer, Eric  Ferguson, Townes, Jones and Olu Famutimi but said Thursday he has been very happy with junior captain Jonathon  Modica and 7-foot freshman center Steven Hill in practice this week.

Six-foot-6 freshman power forward Marcus Monk could also see more action today with his ability to guard all four guard and forward positions.

Rebounding will be at a premium today for Arkansas, which ranks 10th in SEC games in margin (minus-5.2) while Kentucky outboards its opponents by 8.8 per game.

"You just got to want the ball," Ferguson said. "All guys who rebound great just want the ball. That's what we got to do.

"We have to fight for it."

Just like back in the good ol' days.

"I think this will be a great chance for us to renew ourselves," Modica said. "We get a chance for something to really rejoice and be proud of."

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