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March 1, 2013
Cats face road test as Hogs turn up the heat
They used to call it "40 Minutes of Hell."
That was when Nolan Richardson worked the sideline at Arkansas, when his teams' relentless full-court pressure made it like Hades for opponents and their point guards.
Those days are gone, but Arkansas' creeping ever closer under head coach and former Richardson disciple Mike Anderson, who calls his style "The Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball."
And though they've dropped the "Hell," Anderson's Razorbacks figure to bring some heat Saturday when Kentucky (20-8, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) visits Bud Walton Arena.
"They're more - I don't want to use the term helter-skelter, but there's no rhyme or reason sometimes why they're trapping or why they're switching or what they're doing," Kentucky coach John Calipari said Friday. "It's trying to speed up the game and trying to be aggressive. So you got to play with instincts more and historically our teams have been fine doing that. We'll see in this environment how we do."
The environment is key.
The Razorbacks (17-11, 8-7) hardly have given foes heck on the road. But it's a 40-Minutes-of-Hellacious job to beat the Hogs at home. Arkansas is 16-1 at Bud Walton Arena this season, 1-10 away from it.
Combine Arkansas' full-court press and home-court success with the other pressure Kentucky is feeling - to stay on the winning track for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament - and UK faces an uphill climb on Saturday.
The Cats insist, though, that only the Bud Walton racket and not the NCAA bracket is on their minds this week.
"I haven't even been worried about getting into the tournament," point guard Ryan Harrow said. "Yeah, I guess everybody else is. I haven't really thought about it. I mean, if we just keep doing what we're supposed to do, we'll be in the tournament."
That means continuing to win. And that means winning at Arkansas.
To do that, Kentucky's guards likely will have to be at their best.
The Razorbacks force 17.6 turnovers per game, more than any other SEC team. They score 20.8 points per game off their opponents' turnovers. The pressure the Hogs apply means added stress for guards Harrow, Julius Mays and Archie Goodwin.
"I think we need to play really well," Mays said. "Obviously the ball's going to be in our hands 90 percent of the game and they're going to get up in us and be pressuring us the whole game and trying to get us to turn it over. So, really, it's all in our hands."
And that's just where Calipari wants it, despite the ups and downs Kentucky's guards have experienced this this season. When Kentucky lost forward Nerlens Noel for the season, Calipari installed a new, more free-flowing offense designed to give his guards more control.
"We try to put more on their shoulders," Calipari said. "What you don't want is, you don't want any excuses, no copouts. Now, what do you say now? You just got to have those guys take responsibility."
So far, they have.
Kentucky has won three straight - all at home - since an 88-58 loss at Tennessee in its first game post-Noel.
Over that three-game winning streak, Harrow, Mays and Goodwin have averaged 45.3 points per game between them. That trio has combined for 32 assists and 18 turnovers, including a combined 27 assists and six turnovers for Goodwin and Mays.
"All our perimeter guys have been playing well," Mays said. "Really, everybody's been playing with a lot of confidence. It's making us come together."
But those three games all have come at home.
Now Kentucky hits the road to play a team that Calipari said will play "hand-to-hand combat" with its pressure defense, the sort of physical challenge that the Cats "haven't played through well," Calipari said.
Bud Walton Arena will be sold out. The game figures to be physical. In short, Kentucky faces a Hell of a challenge.
"Our team's playing better," Calipari said. "We're now going on the road in a hostile environment and this will be the next test for us. Where are we? How far have we come?"