UK fell to 5-7 away from Rupp Arena with a 73-60 loss at Arkansas on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Big Blueprint is back. A rapid recap of the game, the Big Blueprint looks at the nuts and bolts of the latest UK game when Cat Scratches is not in attendance. Tonight, Kentucky's 73-60 loss at Arkansas. The skinny: When UK got out to an 11-4 lead a little more than four minutes into the first half, the Wildcats seemed on their way to overcoming a hostile road crowd and an Arkansas team that rarely loses at home. Instead, the Razorbacks surged ahead by halftime and put the hammer down in the second half to send UK to a 73-60 defeat, ending its three-game winning streak. UK falls to 20-9 on the season with the loss and 11-5 in Southeastern Conference play, while Arkansas improves to 18-11 (9-7 SEC), including 17-1 at Bud Walton Arena. UK joins likely NCAA Tournament teams Florida, Missouri and Oklahoma as teams to lose on the road at Arkansas. The difference: Turnovers and rebounding. You don't have to do much box-score digging to diagnose the Cats' problems on Saturday. Buoyed by a raucous environment, the Hogs were the aggressors all day, even when their shots weren't falling. The Arkansas pressure forced UK into 19 turnovers - a season high for the Cats - and the Razorbacks scored 30 points off turnovers to Kentucky's two. Arkansas also used 20 offensive rebounds to take a 44-37 edge on the glass. As a result of those two factors, the Razorbacks attempted 69 shots to UK's 43, overcoming the fact that UK shot 46.5 percent from the field to Arkansas' 34.8. Player of the game: Coty Clarke. Marshawn Powell led the Hogs with 15 points, but Clarke had a monopoly on pretty much every other category. To go with his 14 points on just five shots, Clarke had 12 rebounds, six assists and three of Arkansas' 11 steals. Turning point: In spite of plenty of issues over the first 20 minutes, Alex Poythress hit two free throws on the first possession of the second half to cut the Arkansas lead to 32-31. Arkansas, however, answered with an 11-0 run over the next 2:20 to create a margin the Hogs would never relinquish. The Cats trailed by at least five the rest of the way and by double figures for most of it.
Key stat: Bench production. Turnovers and rebounding are clearly the two biggest statistical reasons for this UK loss, but don't dismiss Arkansas' depth as a reason for that. Ten different Razorbacks played double-digit minutes to seven for UK. Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley-Stein (13 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks) and Julius Mays all played at least 36 minutes while no Hog played more than 28. Arkansas also got 24 points from its bench to 11 for UK.
Unsung hero: Goodwin. John Calipari acknowledged on Friday that it would not be easy for Goodwin as he returned to play in his home state. But with approximately 40 family members and friends in attendance, Goodwin was UK's most consistent performer. He had a team-best 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting and added five rebounds, two assists and a steal even as he was the subject of fans' negative attention all game long. Postgame interviews
What this one means: Without question, Saturday was a subpar performance for the Cats. They didn't prove that they had turned the corner once and for all as they wanted to, but they also didn't undo all of their good work from their previous three outings. A win would have made UK feel relatively secure about its NCAA Tournament chances, but with two regular-season games and the SEC Tournament still left, the Cats aren't out of those types of opportunities. UK will return home to Lexington on Saturday night and turn its attention to a Wednesday trip to Georgia.
Archie Goodwin will return to his home state on Saturday for UK's game against Arkansas. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On more than one occasion, Kentucky has turned in a performance that has led proclamations that the Wildcats had turned the corner and were on the way to fulfilling their potential.
First it happened at Auburn when the Cats proved John Calipari wrong and "whomped" the Tigers. Ten days later, it happened again at Ole Miss in what - at the time - was billed as UK's signature win.
As it turned out, the development of Coach Cal's youngest team to date was a much more complicated process than that. Perhaps those moments were signs of progress, but they certainly weren't the turning point everyone has been awaiting.
Once again, the Cats are being asked about a potential breakthrough. UK is in the midst of a three-game winning streak - all at home and all without Nerlens Noel.
So what makes this time different? According to Ryan Harrow, it's the simple fact that the Cats can't afford to mess around anymore.
"It's kind of like the end of the road now so it really matters and everything counts right now," Harrow said. "We hold our destiny in our hands as Coach would say."
Indeed UK (20-8, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) does control its own fate. The Cats need only continue to win games and they'll be able to rest easy on Selection Sunday. And in spite of all the adversity they've faced, the Cats can clinch a share of the conference title with victories in their final three-regular season games.
Players say they aren't worried about those things though, at least not directly anyway. The goal is to keep improving, to keep coming together as a team and to let those things show on the court game by game. The next such chance for the Cats comes on the road against Arkansas (17-11, 8-7 SEC) on Saturday (4 p.m. ET on CBS), but it won't be easy.
The Razorbacks have a nearly spotless 16-1 record in home games (compared with just 1-10 away from Bud Walton Arena). Mike Anderson's team plays a fast-paced style that relies on consistent but unpredictable ball pressure. Arkansas is forcing turnovers on 24.6 percent of its defensive possessions, which means UK's backcourt is in for a test.
The Arkansas matchup isn't all bad news though. The Razorbacks rank first in the SEC and 13th nationally in adjusted tempo according to kenpom.com at 71.0 possessions per game. The Cats are 11-2 in games in which each team has at least 70 possessions, while six of their eight losses this season have come in slower-paced games with 65 possessions or fewer.
Don't let the brisk pace fool you into thinking it will be a game without contact though.
"I know this game will be very physical, hand-to-hand combat, and it's something that we haven't played through well," Calipari said. "And this will be, OK, the next evolution of this team is, when stuff gets rough and it's body to body, can you play? We'll be able to see."
If Harrow continues to play the way he has during UK's winning streak, the Cats figure to have a good chance. During that stretch, Harrow has averaged 15.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists. He's been efficient too, hitting 56.3 percent from the field and committing just three total turnovers.
Fellow guard Julius Mays (44 points, 13 assists and three turnovers) has been equally steady over the last three games, while Jarrod Polson has made consistent contributions. Archie Goodwin has had some forgettable first halves, but he's shooting 50 percent from the field over the last three games himself.
"Everybody's playing with a lot of confidence," Mays said. "We're all doing what we can do. Ryan's been leading the team, playing like how a point guard should play. Archie's stepped it up. Those last few games he's had second halves. I've been shooting the ball well. Jarrod's been playing well. All of our perimeter guys have been playing well."
Considering he'll be returning to his home state to play against the school many of his friends wanted him to attend, Goodwin figures to be particularly keen on playing well, though the road crowd won't make it easy on him.
"It'll be tough," Calipari said. "We talked a little bit about it. It's going to be a hard deal for him, but I think he'll be fine."
Both Harrow and Mays reported giving some of their allotted tickets to Goodwin, so the freshman guard will have plenty of family and friends there supporting him. He will surely enjoy seeing them, but once he gets between the lines, he'll have to put it all aside.
"I just told him, 'You got to keep your head focused on our team,' but it's hard," Calipari said.
That's really the whole point. The only true way for Goodwin and the Cats to gauge their true progress is in difficult circumstances.
"We've won some games, so they're better," Calipari said of his team's mindset. "But again, you got to get hit in the mouth a little bit and see how guys respond. That's why you play these kind of games. It's a tough, tough challenge for us going in there."
Here are some interesting statistical notes for tomorrow's matchup at Arkansas...
Kentucky has averaged 13.7 turnovers per game in SEC play and Arkansas is a team that will do its best to exploit the Cats in that department. The Razorbacks lead the SEC in forcing turnovers at almost 18 per game.
Arkansas is second in the league at 70.8 possessions per game according to kenpom.com, so Kentucky should find itself in an up-tempo game on Saturday. UK is 3-0 against the teams in the SEC that rank in top four of most possessions per game (Ole Miss, LSU, Missouri), while three of the Cats' four league losses have come against teams ranked among the bottom four in possessions (Alabama, Florida, Texas A&M). Vanderbilt averages the fewest possessions per game and UK's two wins against the 'Dores came by a total of only six points.
Neither Kentucky nor Arkansas relies too heavily on 3-pointers. The Hogs get 56.8 percent of their points on 2-point shots (second-most in the SEC) and that's just ahead of UK's 56.4 percent.
Cats not out of bubble trouble just yet
Kentucky certainly enhanced its NCAA Tournament resume last Saturday when it beat Missouri, but the Wildcats still have not moved out of the land of bubble talk.
"There's not a lot of margin for error. Beating Florida would mean a lot because that's the one quality win left that you can get in the SEC. The win over Missouri gives you reason for hope but now they've got to take that act on the road. They may need to win both of those road games," said CBSSports.com bracket analyst Jerry Palm this week on "The Leach Report" radio show. "It depends on what other teams do. You might think you've done enough but somebody else might do something better."
Palm says UK's worksheet is "clearly" short on quality wins but he says one factor in the Cats' favor is a lack of losses to "bad teams (with triple-digit RPIs).
"Texas A&M (86th in the RPI) is probably their worst loss. The fact that they haven't lost to the South Carolinas and Auburns is good," Palm noted. "There's at least a level of consistency there."
Palm believes the selection committee will not penalize Kentucky for not having Nerlens Noel when it comes to picking the field for the tournament. However, if UK gets in, he thinks not having Noel could hurt them from a seeding standpoint.
What's the best-case scenario for UK for seeding?
"I can't see any scenario where Kentucky is wearing a white jersey in its first game, unless they're in the play-in game," Palm said.
On UK's potential breakthrough
John Calipari has been pushing various buttons all season long, trying to find the right ones to motivate this particular team to reach its potential. We saw this play out two years ago, when Kentucky was still struggling to win close games on the road in late February but that group jelled in the final week of the regular season and went all the way to the Final Four.
We'll see how these young Cats fare on the road in the next two games, but from what I saw last week, I think Calipari and his staff may have finally had a breakthrough. Maybe it was the crisis moment of a 30-point loss to Tennessee, maybe it was dodgeball, maybe it was something else or some combination, but the Cats looked more comfortable and focused in their wins over Vandy, Missouri and Mississippi State.
Reading the ups and downs of a group of young men in the glare of a spotlight like UK basketball is no easy thing to do, but Calipari certainly seems to have a knack for it. I talked with Tony Barnhart about that in a recent appearance on "The Leach Report" radio show.
"The hardest thing for coaches to do, and a coach told me this a long time ago, is to get 18-year old young men, who are obviously focused on their goals and their dreams, to believe in something bigger than themselves," Barnhart said. "That's hard to do and the great coaches know how to do it."
18-0 never been done in SEC play
No SEC team has ever gone 18-0 in league play and it was on this date that Kentucky's Sam Bowie made sure that stat remained intact.
An LSU team that would eventually reach the Final Four came into Rupp on March 1 with a perfect 17-0 mark but Kentucky pulled off a 73-71 upset. Bowie preserved the victory with a block of Howard Carter's baseline jumper, in a play similar to one Anthony Davis made last year against North Carolina to protect UK's win that day.
Members of Kentucky's 1996 national championship returned to Rupp Arena on Wednesday night for a special ceremony. Members of the team known as "The Untouchables" received title rings the players designed themselves in a ceremony at halftime of UK's win over Mississippi State.
"They sacrificed more than any team I'd ever seen When you talk about guys getting 20 minutes who deserved 40 minutes and accepting it, it was incredible," John Calipari said. "Anytime I see them, they're always kind to us and this program. I'm just happy that the university stepped up and did what they did. I think it shows a lot that we do reach back. If there's anything that we can make right, we do."
Check out the video above to see the ring ceremony. If you didn't see our story from earlier in the week about the '96 team getting rings, check it out here.
Ryan Harrow had 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists in UK's 85-55 win over Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Eleven days ago, the place you were likeliest to find Ryan Harrow was the bench. As Kentucky suffered its worst loss of the John Calipari era at Tennessee, Harrow played just 18 minutes.
Sitting on the sideline, Harrow did little to try to hide his displeasure. With his team down big and Harrow not starting for the first time in more than two months, he wasn't happy.
Harrow didn't direct his discontent toward his coach or his teammates. He didn't try to assign blame as he went scoreless for the second straight game.
"I was more so disappointed in myself to how I was playing and to put myself in that position to be sitting on the bench," Harrow said.
Rather than going into a shell and resigning himself to his fate, Harrow decided to do something about it. Inspired by a team meeting during which his fellow Wildcats reminded him how much they needed him, Harrow called for a sitdown with Coach Cal and asked for his starting point-guard spot back. He granted the request, with one condition.
"When I went to go talk to Coach when we had that meeting, he just told me he needed me to be aggressive and when I play well it helps the team a lot," Harrow said.
Calipari had been delivering the message all season, but it was then that it sunk in once and for all: Paradoxical as it may sound, Harrow was in fact being selfish when he too often deferred.
"Coach has said it the whole year," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "When Ryan plays aggressive and (not) passive, that brings our whole team up. When he's playing like that, it's hard to beat us. He's got everybody else going. His defense, it just lifts everybody else up. We run more. When he's taking control, it's just a good thing."
Perhaps more than at any point this season, Harrow was in control on Wednesday against Mississippi State. And as the 85-55 final score showed, it was certainly a good thing for the Cats.
"The biggest thing it does, it's like what Willie said: I'm going to do my job; you all got to do your job," Calipari said. "So now Ryan's doing his job, it makes it easier on everybody on the team."
Harrow did his job to the tune of 19 points and four assists. He connected on six of his nine field-goal attempts, hit three 3-pointers and didn't commit a single turnover. He deftly ran a UK offense its most points in a non-overtime game since Jan. 29, using his driving ability and attacking when it was appropriate.
In the three games since his two scoreless outings at Florida and Tennessee, Harrow has scored in double figures each time. He's averaging 15.7 points during that stretch and has 14 total assists against just three turnovers. And in none of those games has Harrow played fewer than 30 minutes.
"My confidence is really good right now, really high," Harrow said. "I'm just playing a lot better offensively and defensively and I'm starting to do a lot more things on the court."
His slight frame might not suggest that one of those things would not be rebounding, but Harrow is mixing it up on the glass too. After grabbing seven rebounds against Mississippi State, Harrow has 20 over his last three games. Only Cauley-Stein has more over that stretch with 25 to lead the team.
"Coach told us since Nerlens (Noel) is out we just have start rebounding more," Harrow said. "All the guards have to start rebounding more. Especially with teams that shoot a lot of 3s, the ball's gonna fly out farther to where the point guards are at."
Cauley-Stein has a lot on his plate in having to step up in Noel's absence. So too does Alex Poythress in his move to a more post-oriented role as the Cats have reinvented themselves and clawed their way out of the coffin Calipari has taken to saying they were in a week and a half ago. Harrow's work on the boards has gone a long way to lighten the load of his frontcourt teammates and he's happy to do it, especially if it means he gets to be on the floor all the time.
"Oh, I'm real happy," Harrow said. "I didn't like sitting on the bench. I don't like sitting on the bench unless I'm tired. But I'm just trying to do whatever the team needs me to do, whether that's scoring or playing defense or getting rebounds."