John Clay

John Clay: Arkansas may not be a big game for Kentucky, but it would be a big win

Kentucky’s Jamal Murray has scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games.
Kentucky’s Jamal Murray has scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games. AP

Thursday night isn’t a must-win game for Kentucky. Arkansas is a tough place to play. We’re not yet to February. History shows us John Calipari’s 2010-11 team lost six league road games, including an overtime “L” in Fayetteville. That team also reached the Final Four.

“There’s no need to panic,” UK assistant John Robic said Wednesday.

Panic? No. Concern? Yes. A loss would drop the 2015-16 Cats to 3-3 in the SEC, something that hasn’t happened in the Calipari era. Meanwhile, games at South Carolina, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Florida await on the Cats’ travel itinerary.

Plus, this Kentucky team appears in need of the confidence boost a rare road win at Arkansas — Calipari is 0-3 at Bud Walton as the UK coach — would certainly provide.

True, Kentucky already has a road win. It topped Alabama 77-61 on Jan. 9. The Crimson Tide are far from a hoops powerhouse, however. A loss at Auburn on Tuesday night dropped Avery Johnson’s team to 1-4 in league play. Arkansas shares Kentucky’s 3-2 conference mark.

So far, the Cats have managed to rebound from poor performances. It followed the 87-77 loss at UCLA with back-to-back wins over EKU and Arizona State. After a dud showing in Brooklyn produced a surprise 74-67 loss to Ohio State, the Cats beat Louisville at home. (That, not Duke, is UK’s most impressive win to date.) After an 85-67 thrashing on the road at LSU, Calipari’s club executed like pros in the convincing win at Alabama.

Now here we are again. Up a dozen with 15 minutes to go at Auburn, hardly a powerhouse, the Cats found ways to not only let Bruce Pearl’s team back in the game but for the Tigers to take control of the game.

“Non-winning basketball plays,” Robic said Wednesday. “Both sides of the ball.”

That’s what Calipari and his assistant have showed the team on video since it returned from Auburn. Bad passes. Weak screens. Defensive breakdowns. Those are the attention-to-detail mistakes that cause a road team to let a home crowd back in the game and the home team to feed off that energy.

Auburn also made 12 three-pointers last Saturday, just the fifth time in the Calipari era the opponent has made at least a dozen three-pointers. Oddly enough, in the previous four games, Kentucky found a way to overcome that obstacle. Saturday, it couldn’t.

“We all know what we did wrong,” said freshman guard Jamal Murray on Wednesday. “There’s not much to say on that.”

Murray probably hears the phrase “winning plays” every day. It’s a Calipari mantra where Murray is concerned. Robic used the phrase Wednesday when asked about Murray. “He’s learning,” said the assistant. “That’s a good thing.”

The Canada native is probably UK’s best offensive player but also its least disciplined. Murray scored 20 points at Auburn — the fourth straight game he’s scored at least 20 points — but needed 22 shots to do so. At times, his recklessness is a liability. And at times, Murray is the man keeping Kentucky in the game.

Then again, as Calipari pointed out at Auburn, when the Cats are not getting much production from their inside guys, it puts more pressure on perimeter players to produce. If Murray and fellow freshman Isaiah Briscoe force things, it’s usually because something has to be forced. There’s no other choice. Points have to come from somewhere.

It will take plenty of points to beat the Razorbacks. Mike Anderson’s team is averaging 83.8 points per game, 16th nationally. It’s a typical Anderson team that runs and traps full-court, especially at home. Arkansas doesn’t shoot as many three-pointers as its opponent (266 attempts to 362), but the Hogs can be deadly from beyond the arc — second in the nation behind Oklahoma in three-point field goal percentage at 44.7.

“I would call them elite shooters,” Robic said.

It’s another challenge for an up-and-down Kentucky team still searching for consistency. A loss at Arkansas isn’t the end of the world, but a win could be a springboard. As Calipari himself has been known to say, it’s only a “big game” if you win it.

Kentucky at Arkansas

When: 7 p.m., Thursday

Where: Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville

TV: ESPN with Joe Tessitore and Sean Farnham

Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt

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