Kentucky basketball's rivalry with Arkansas needs a jolt

Rivalry could use some heat

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 23, 2011 

John Wall, left, chest-bumped Jon Hood after the Cats whipped Arkansas 101-70 in Rupp Arena last year. UK was up 75-29 at one point in the second half.

National networks used to use Kentucky-Arkansas games as lead-in programming for Super Bowls. UK plays at Arkansas on Wednesday night followed on Lexington's WKYT-TV by the whodunit Criminal Minds.

That's quite a humbling note for what once was the must-see TV event each Southeastern Conference basketball season.

Ten straight Kentucky victories and Arkansas' decline took the sizzle out of the series.

For Darius Miller, who was 10 the last time Arkansas beat UK, the derring-do of yesteryear is not even a faint memory. Asked whether he recalled a compelling Kentucky-Arkansas game, he said, "Nah." Is this season's game at Fayetteville special in any way? "Not really," he said.

It was special right from the start, when Arkansas joined the SEC in 1991-92. The Hogs sensed that their new brethren looked down on any team from the old Southwest Conference.

So Arkan-came, Arkansas, Arkan-conquered in beating Kentucky in Rupp Arena.

"They had no clue what kind of team we had," said Nolan Richardson, who remains the only Arkansas coach to ever beat UK. "We had played teams like Alabama, Vanderbilt, a couple (others) in the SEC. And to me, they weren't that good. So we went into the (SEC) thinking, they're not as good as we are. I thought Big O (Oliver Miller) and (Todd) Day and (Lee) Mayberry, no way they thought Kentucky was as good as we were."

Thrillers on an almost annual basis ensued. Scotty Thurman hit a game-winner at the buzzer. UK overcame Rodrick Rhodes' emotional meltdown in the SEC Tournament finals. UK ignored Roger Crawford's choke sign.

"That was always a classic," Richardson said on Tuesday. "You had the two flagship teams ... Kentucky and Arkansas. We dominated the television rights back in those times. That made it a huge game every year whether you played it at Rupp Arena or played at our place."

The Kentucky and Arkansas that play this season do not suggest a duel of the titans.

Kentucky brings a 1-5 SEC road record to Arkansas. No UK team has lost six league games on the road since divisional play began in 1991-92.

Miller cited better preparation as a reason to believe Kentucky can get over the little SEC road hump: five losses by a total of 17 points.

UK Coach John Calipari likened the road record to poor free-throw shooting. The more attention paid to it, the greater chance it has of becoming a mental problem.

"If you struggle with free throws and you keep talking about it, it makes it get worse," Calipari said. "We've played fairly well on the road."

A reporter asked Calipari on Tuesday whether UK's road record might make Arkansas overconfident.

"Whew!" the UK coach said. "I'd rather not have the advantage if that's the advantage.

"They probably think they can beat us, and I don't think it's going to lighten (the Hogs' desire). It's like, this is a chance to get them (UK), and let's take advantage of it."

Arkansas hasn't forgotten a 101-70 loss in Lexington.

"I don't really know too much about it," Marshawn Powell said of the series' history. "I just know, last year they killed us. I just want some payback for that."

Even a tasty revenge motive fails to give this Kentucky-Arkansas game a distinctive quality.

"Every team wants to play us," Eloy Vargas said, "so they can say they beat Kentucky."

Kentucky led Arkansas 57-27 at halftime last season. The score was 75-29 with 15 minutes left.

"Man, it was terrible," Powell said.

When a reporter reminded Powell that Kentucky has almost a completely new roster this season, he said, "It's whoever (is playing for Kentucky). It doesn't matter."

Arkansas has lost four of its past six, failing to score more than 60 points in any of the defeats. The Hogs haven't come close to filling Bud Walton Arena (capacity 19,200). The largest home crowd of the season so far is the 14,174 that watched Arkansas lose 69-60 to Mississippi.

The game against Kentucky's isn't a sellout. But it's close. Too bad the Kentucky-Arkansas series isn't close to what it once was.

"In the 1990s, it was at a fever pitch," former Arkansas star Sidney Moncrief said this week. "I went to a game in the past year, and it felt like a morgue."

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