Kentucky, Arkansas to fill Rupp with positive energy

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 26, 2014 

  • SEC standings

    Conf. All

    Florida 15-0 26-2

    Kentucky 11-3 21-6

    Georgia 10-5 16-11

    Texas A&M 7-7 16-11

    Tennessee 7-7 16-11

    Mississippi 7-7 16-11

    LSU 7-716-10

    Arkansas 7-7 18-9

    Vanderbilt 7-8 15-12

    Missouri 7-819-9

    Alabama 5-9 11-16

    Auburn 4-10 12-13

    Mississippi St. 3-11 13-14

    South Carolina 3-11 10-17

    Thursday's games

    Arkansas at Kentucky, 7 p.m.

    Saturday's games

    Vanderbilt at Tennessee, Noon

    Miss. St. at Missouri, 1:30 p.m.

    Auburn at Alabama, 3 p.m.

    Georgia at Arkansas, 4 p.m.

    LSU at Florida, 4 p.m.

    Kentucky at S. Carolina, 6 p.m.

    Mississippi at Texas A&M, 6 p.m.

With all the feel-good positivity and kumbaya in the air, it seems possible Kentucky and Arkansas will win Thursday night in Rupp Arena.

Kentucky players and assistant coach Orlando Antigua talked about riding a tsunami of can-do optimism: The thrilling overtime victory over LSU on Saturday. The picture of happy players celebrating with hero Julius Randle hanging on a practice facility wall. Players energizing each other by slapping the floor in eager anticipation of the next play. Randle taking ownership, as trendy parlance puts it, by bypassing the coaches and assigning himself as defender of LSU stud Johnny O'Bryant III.

To sum up with one word: fun.

"To see that pure joy for one another, it's what the coaching staff is working to get them to," said Antigua, who substituted for UK Coach John Calipari in the day-before-a-game news conference.

To hang a picture showing the rejoicing around Randle on Saturday was intended to send a message. "That's what it feels like," Antigua said. "That's what it's supposed to be about."

Arkansas, which hasn't won at Kentucky in 20 years, has won three straight, and five of its last six. The loss came via a buzzer-beater at Missouri.

Given up as dead in terms of the NCAA Tournament, Arkansas comes to Rupp Arena with another precious commodity in its heart: hope.

"I think it's a big opportunity for us," freshman Bobby Portis said on Tuesday. "Because right now, no one is talking about us in the nation. Like we aren't on anyone's bubble or anything right now. So I think (if) we go out there and win Thursday, that will be a wakeup call for us around the nation."

Freshman Marcus Lee stressed UK's need for the uplifting victory that came against LSU on Saturday.

"I think it was severely needed," he said. "We really needed that moment when we all came together. ... (Kentucky) needed that moment of passion."

UK didn't lack passion previously as much as lacked the know-how to produce it.

"It was just the fact of knowing where to get it from," he said. "We didn't know where to grab all this passion and how to use it as a team."

A more engaged Kentucky team will not surprise Arkansas.

"We know they are going to come out with a lot of intensity after they lost like that," Anthlon Bell said of this season's first UK-Arkansas game. "So we know they are going to come out and try to do the most."

Antigua saw more than symbolic value in something as simple as players slapping the court in bring-it-on fervor.

"They know they can ignite each other in that way," he said. "If you see one (player slap the floor), it leads to someone else."

As Lee recalled, Kentucky failed to match Arkansas' enthusiasm when the teams played in Fayetteville last month.

"They were more ready for the team," he said. "We were kind of nonchalant."

Randle, named by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association as National Player of the Week for last week, said Kentucky needed the sense of satisfaction that comes with winning a hotly competitive game. The Cats had won only once in six games decided by five or fewer points before beating LSU 77-76 in overtime.

"We just needed a dogfight," he said. "... To keep fighting and fighting. Eventually a breakthrough and end up winning."

Besides making significant tangible contributions (15 rebounds, plus the winning putback), Randle provided an intangible by guarding O'Bryant, who scored LSU's first two baskets of overtime but none thereafter.

"What Coach Cal is talking about by this being their team," Antigua said. "Those are the moments it becomes their team and not a coach-driven team."

Antigua acknowledged a strategy behind the coaches' recent happy-talk. Calipari went so far as to mention Kentucky and a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament in the same sentence.

"We identify what they're putting in and what they're doing," he said. "That's really what we're doing. The guys are putting in a lot of extra time and a lot of extra work. Keeping doing that. Because as you get better, the team gets better."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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