Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s track-meet win against Arkansas

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 111-102 win over the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday at Rupp Arena:

1. Reed Sheppard last game; Rob Dillingham this game

Reed Sheppard wore the hero’s cape Tuesday night in Starkville. The Kentucky freshman guard made the difference down the stretch on the way to a 32-point performance as the Wildcats nipped Mississippi State 91-89 at the buzzer at the Hump.

Rob Dillingham wore the hero’s cape Saturday afternoon. The Kentucky freshman guard made the difference down the stretch as the Wildcats fought back from a nine-point deficit in the second half to outlast the Razorbacks in a track meet at Rupp.

Dillingham didn’t come close to Sheppard’s Tuesday torrent of points, but he produced a similar impact. He kick-started what turned out to be a deciding 11-2 run with the first four points for a 91-90 UK lead. After Arkansas inched back in front, a Dillingham lob turned into a Justin Edwards jam to make it 93-92 Cats. Two possessions later, Dillingham found Zvonimir Ivisic for another jam off a lob to make it 97-92.

Rob wasn’t done. He scored on a reverse layup with 2:48 left to make it 100-94 home team. Next possession, he completed another lob pass to Ivisic with Big Z dropping the ball through the hoop for a 102-94 Kentucky lead.

The takeaway: It’s good to have good guards. Antonio Reeves led the Cats with 22 points. Sheppard contributed 10. But in this game it was Dillingham’s 15 points and five assists that made the difference.

And what’s that they say about guard play in March? You have to have it.

Kentucky guard Justin Edwards (1) reacts after drawing a foul against Arkansas during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky guard Justin Edwards (1) reacts after drawing a foul against Arkansas during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.

2. Kentucky’s defense is still a major worry

Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks did not play like a team that was 5-10 in the SEC. In fact, Arkansas shot 53.1% from the floor. It made 7 of 17 3-point attempts. It scored a ridiculous 48 points in the paint.

That paint production had much to do with the way Arkansas took the ball to the basket, driving around Kentucky defenders time after time. Razorbacks’ guard Khalif Battle led all scorers with 34 points, 17 of which came at the foul line. He was 17-for-18 from the charity stripe. That means Battle was consistently able to get to the rim and draw the foul.

Arkansas started the game by making its first six shots. With 7:39 to go in the first half, the visitors were 14-for-20 from the floor for a sizzling 70%. That caused UK coach John Calipari to try one of the things he hates with all his might to try — a zone defense.

“The good thing about playing zone is that we have no idea what we’re doing,” Calipari said afterward. “So how can they know what we’re doing.”

Calipari also said this: “I told Jay Wright (of CBS) that at one point, I was like let them score so we can get it back. That isn’t what I said but that’s what it looked like.”

The worrisome part is that Arkansas entered the game 121st in defensive efficiency. The Razorbacks ended up averaging 1.210 points per possession this game. For Kentucky, that’s not a good number. And there will be better offensive teams down the NCAA Tournament road.

“We had to outscore them,” Calipari said Saturday.

But can the Cats keep doing that?

3. The postseason is a week away

Vanderbilt comes to Rupp Arena on Wednesday night for UK’s Senior Night. It’s one of those dreaded 9 p.m. tipoffs. “I can’t stay up that late,” Calipari told the audience who stuck around for his postgame radio show.

The Cats crushed the Commodores 109-77 on Feb. 6 in Nashville. And there will be plenty of surprised people if Vandy doesn’t move on from coach Jerry Stackhouse at season’s end. Then again, Vandy beat Arkansas 85-82 earlier this week in Fayetteville.

But the big game is Saturday in Knoxville. Kentucky-Tennessee at 4 p.m. at Thompson-Boling. The outcome isn’t likely to make much of a difference in the conference race. Tennessee entered Saturday night’s game at Alabama two games ahead of UK in the loss column. Still, UK-UT could be a preview of the SEC Tournament in Nashville, starting March 13.

Tennessee won the first meeting 103-92 at Rupp on Feb. 3. Playing the Vols on UT’s home floor should give us an idea if the Cats are indeed a better team than they were a month ago. They certainly need to be better defensively.

One good sign Saturday was the return of UK forward Tre Mitchell after a four-game absence. Mitchell scored just two points and grabbed three rebounds in 16 minutes. He’ll need to knock some more rust off, no doubt. Still, having the savvy super-senior back should help the Cats now that we’re in March.

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