Kentucky preparing for 'hand-to-hand combat' at Arkansas

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 1, 2013 

  • Kentucky at Arkansas

    When: 4 p.m.

    TV: CBS-27

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

    Records: Kentucky 20-8 (11-4 SEC), Arkansas 17-11 (8-7)

    Series: Kentucky leads 25-8

    Last meeting: Kentucky won 86-63 on Jan. 17, 2012, in Lexington.

With Kentucky riding a three-game winning streak going into Saturday's game at Arkansas, point guard Ryan Harrow declared the turning of a metaphorical corner.

"We've kind of made a breakthrough," Harrow said Friday.

UK Coach John Calipari agreed, but only to a point.

A three-game winning streak suggests the Cats have digested the loss of their best player, Nerlens Noel, and re-grouped for the stretch run of the season.

"I think we're in good shape there," Calipari said.

But more challenges await to test the premise. That process continues at Arkansas, which has won 16 of 17 home games this season. The lone loss came against then-No. 6 Syracuse on Nov. 30.

Calipari suggested Arkansas' full-court pressure defense presents a chance for Kentucky to show its growth.

"I know this game will be real physical, hand-to-hand combat," he said. "Something we haven't played through well. The next evolution of this team is when it gets rough, body to body, can you play? And that we'll be able to see."

Harrow, who has not had a turnover in two of the four post-Noel injury games, sounded confident in facing the challenge ahead. He stressed the need to be prudent in the face of pressure.

"You have to control the defense rather than let the defense control you," he said.

After Kentucky beat Mississippi State on Wednesday, the Bulldogs' coach, Rick Ray, recalled Harrow struggling a bit against pressure as a freshman for North Carolina State. That season Ray was an assistant at Clemson.

"You can tell he's maturing and starting to figure things out," Ray said.

Harrow cited that experience as a freshman, plus the practices against Marquis Teague last season as a benefit to his personal growth.

Backcourt mate Julius Mays acknowledged how the onus will be on Kentucky's guards at Arkansas.

"Obviously, the ball will be in our hands 90 percent of the time," he said. " ... I don't think of it as pressure on us. We just have to do what we have to do."

Kentucky, 20-8 overall and 11-4 in the Southeastern Conference, packed an air of confidence for the trip to Arkansas. Mays noted how Harrow has been playing "like a point guard should." Freshman Archie Goodwin has "stepped it up," he said.

Mays has been the third-most accurate three-point shooter in league play. His 46.3-percent shooting trails only the Florida tandem of freshman Michael Frazier II (54.9 percent) and forward Erik Murphy (47.5).

Of course, Arkansas tries to apply enough pressure to get opponents out of their routines. The Hogs want to take away muscle memory.

"I don't want to use the word 'helter skelter,'" said Calipari, who added that Arkansas' pressure might not always be based on "rhyme or reason."

The numbers suggest that more effective pressure defense contributes to the startling contrast in Arkansas' record at home (16-1) and outside the state (1-10). In Bud Walton Arena, visiting teams average 20.3 turnovers. That number is 15.9 when Arkansas is the visiting team.

Much pre-game speculation centers on each team's chances for an NCAA Tournament bid. Neither team would seem to have much room for error.

While Calipari has consistently tried to deflate such talk, Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson seemed to concede those post-season implications.

"It's a big game," he said Thursday. "It's a big game. There's no question about it, it's a huge game."

Arkansas, 17-11 and 8-7, was in post-season limbo, Anderson said.

"I keep saying we're in the hunt for something," he 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. And that's where their focus should be on."

Meanwhile, Harrow noted the momentum created by the three-game winning streak.

"We hold our destiny in our hands," he said. "If we keep doing what we're supposed to do, we'll be in the tournament."

With Kentucky just a game behind first-place Florida, the same applies to the SEC regular-season championship.

"If we play like we're supposed to these last three games," Harrow said, "we'll end up with that."

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Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog:

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