Rushed Reactions: Kentucky 82, Arkansas 65Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2017
While this game was close for most of the first half, a late surge by hot-shooting Kentucky (60.7% FG) pushed the Wildcats to what would prove to be an insurmountable 12-point halftime lead. The win gave Kentucky its remarkable 17th SEC Tournament title since the event was restarted in its current form in 1979.
- Kentucky’s Improved Defense. Kentucky struggled to defend in late January, causing many to wonder if this year’s version of the Wildcats would ever improve enough to be taken seriously as a Final Four contender. That has changed in the six weeks since, as John Calipari‘s young team has answered affirmatively in resounding fashion. In its three games in Nashville this weekend, Kentucky was incredibly stingy on the defensive end, with a particular emphasis on guarding opponents beyond the arc. In Friday’s quarterfinal match-up with Georgia, the Bulldogs made only 5-of-16 three-point attempts. Alabama was even more dreadful in Saturday’s semifinal (3-for-14 3FG). Sunday brought more of the same, as Arkansas shot a woeful 4-of-18 from beyond the arc. The Wildcats also effectively bottled up Arkansas’ best shooter, Dusty Hannahs, who made only one three on the day and was largely a non-factor.
- A Balanced Performance. Kentucky clearly had a better bench than Arkansas on Sunday afternoon. Nine Wildcats scored, including a solid 14-point game from senior Dominique Hawkins (who averages only 3.9 points per contest). Hawkins was one of four double-figure scorers for Kentucky, which shot 48.2 percent from the field and dominated the glass (+14). For its part, Arkansas received 18 points off the bench from guard Daryl Macon, but he was the only Razorback reserve with more than a single point.
- The Beat Goes on in Nashville. The SEC Tournament has become very routine over the last several years. In the third season in a row the event was held in Nashville, it became the third year in a row that Kentucky waltzed to a championship. A case can be made that the Wildcats have just as much of a home court advantage in the Music City nowadays as they do in Rupp Arena. The good news for Big Blue Nation is that, after the SEC Tournament takes a one-year turn in St. Louis in 2018, it returns to Nashville for another three-year run. Based upon the way things have gone in this conference, Wildcat fans might as well book their hotel rooms and put in their ticket orders for long weekend stays from 2019-21.
Star of the Game. Dominique Hawkins. A case could be made for Bam Adebayo, who contributed one of his best performances of the year, but Hawkins was his usual disruptive self on defense as well as very productive on the offensive end. The senior provided an emotional spark in the early going, getting the partisan crowd fully engaged and allowing the Wildcats to break out to a double-figure halftime lead.
- “I always talk about winning a National Championship. You can’t win a National Championship if you’re not in the Tournament. And we are in the Tournament.” – Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, on the disappointment of losing a shot at an SEC championship but also knowing bigger things are ahead.
- “Bam [Adebayo] had one rebound at the half and ended up with nine. Does that mean he should be getting 15 or 16 a game? Probably.” – Kentucky coach John Calipari, discussing the performance of his freshman center.
- “We’ve said it all year. Dom [Hawkins] has been an immediate spark plug off the bench. This tournament proved he deserves to be on a national stage.” – Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox, on the importance of the senior leader to his team’s success.
Sights and Sounds. Arkansas let its frustrations bubble to the surface late in today’s game. Dusty Hannahs committed a Flagrant One foul first, which was quickly followed by a Flagrant Two from Moses Kingsley on De’Aaron Fox. Kingsley was summarily ejected from the game. It was a potentially ugly scene that was well-controlled by the officials, drawing the loudest reaction of the day from a hyper-partisan Kentucky crowd.
What’s Next. The good news for the Razorbacks is that they acquitted themselves well in this tournament and should therefore be safely within the Field of 68. While they await their fate this afternoon, history tells us that today’s loss will have little impact on their seeding. Most projections put Arkansas in the #8-#9 range, and they will not be an easy out for a #1 seed if they can earn a first-round victory. Speaking of #1 seeds, Kentucky certainly can now make a reasonable case for inclusion on that seed line. The Wildcats don’t get as many opportunities for top-50 RPI wins because of the relative weakness of the SEC, but they do have a robust 18-5 record that came against the top 100. Ultimately, a #2 seed appears most likely, although we won’t be surprised if Kentucky ends up on the top line when the bracket is released later this afternoon.