FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas and Kentucky won’t be battling each other for Southeastern Conference supremacy in Bud Walton Arena this afternoon.
But Arkansas coach Mike Anderson made one thing clear Thursday: This early March meeting between once-intense rivals still carries plenty of significance.
“It’s a big game,” Anderson said. “There’s no question about it. It’s a huge game.”
Plenty remains at stake when the Razorbacks (17-11, 8-7) and Wildcats (20-8, 11-4) meet in front of a CBS television audience and sellout crowd at 3 p.m.
Kentucky is trying to keep pace with Florida in the SEC championship chase with three games remaining in the regular season, while Arkansas aims to keep its dominance in Fayetteville — where it is 15-1 — alive down the stretch.
The Wildcats, after the initial shock of losing center Nerlens Noel last month, also want to prove its recent run of success is no fluke as they try to cement an NCAA Tournament berth. Arkansas, meanwhile, needs to show it is simply postseason worthy after stumbling through two more road losses at Florida and LSU.
So both sides are expecting a heated battle today.
“This will be the next evolution of this team,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said in Lexington, Ky., on Friday. “We’ve won some games, so they’re better. But again, you’ve got to get hit in the mouth a little bit and see how guys respond. That’s why you play these kinds of games. It’s a tough, tough challenge for us going in there.”
Kentucky is now four games removed from the devastating blow suffered at Florida, when Noel went down with a torn knee ligament on Feb. 12. He was a big key to the Wildcats’ national title defense, averaging 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks.
The Wildcats struggled in their first game without him, suffering an 88-58 loss at Tennessee. It left Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament hopes in doubt, but the Wildcats have since beaten Vanderbilt, Missouri and Mississippi State to steady the ship.
Guard Ryan Harrow said it’s a sign Kentucky’s has reinvented itself after the injury to Noel. They expect the new-found success to continue against the Hogs.
“It’s kind of like the end of the road now, so it really matters,” Harrow told the Louisville Courier-Journal on Friday. “Everything counts right now. We hold our destiny in our hands, as coaches say.”
Arkansas’ situation looks much more bleak after consecutive road losses.
The Razorbacks had slipped into the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation after winning four of five, including victories against Florida and Missouri. Now, the Razorbacks sit in a tie for seventh place in the conference standings with LSU.
But Arkansas knows beating a talented Kentucky team at home would certainly help its postseason resume whether the NCAA Tournament or National Invitation Tournament selection committees are judging the Razorbacks.
“I keep saying we’re in the hunt for something,” Anderson said. “I don’t know what it is, but that’s something. … The only thing we can control is, you know, our next practice and our next game. That’s all I want these guys to worry about.”
Arkansas has won 12 straight in Bud Walton Arena after its early-season loss against Syracuse. It includes a 7-0 run in conference play. The Razorbacks haven’t been unbeaten at home in conference play since the 1997-98 season.
They’ll have to reach down and turn in one of their best performances against a Kentucky team gaining confidence to keep it intact. But Anderson has no doubt the Razorbacks will be ready in an Arkansas-Kentucky game with plenty to play for.
“I think where we’re at right now in our season, anybody we play, the name means something,” Anderson said. “But obviously Kentucky’s got tradition. Their tradition and if you look at some of the history of this school vs. Kentucky, there have been some great, great ballgames. Hopefully we’ll have a great one (today).”
Kentucky (20-8) at Arkansas (17-11)
• When: 3 p.m. today
• Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
• TV/Radio: CBS (KTHV-11)/KABZ-FM 103.7
• SEC records: Kentucky 11-4; Arkansas 8-7
• Series: Kentucky leads 25-8; last meeting Kentucky 86-63 on Jan. 17, 2012