Arkansas falls at No. 16 Kentucky

Kentucky's Rob Dillingham, right, collides with Arkansas' El Ellis, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
Kentucky's Rob Dillingham, right, collides with Arkansas' El Ellis, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Arkansas men’s basketball was in the game at Kentucky. It was a shootout; a thriller. It was the kind of game that March brings; the type that both of the rosters at Rupp Arena were built to play in but only one has proven capable of winning this season.

Even so, the Razorbacks were in it. Arkansas, buoyed by Khalif Battle’s 34 points — his third consecutive game with 30 or more points — competed against the Wildcats. But a 5-minute stretch near the end of the second half in which the Razorbacks didn’t score a field goal and a 15-3 Kentucky run in the first were the main differences in the 111-102 loss.

Perhaps it was something to do with the stage: Top-25 opponent in one of college basketball’s premier arenas, CBS in town with March Madness in the air and the iconic anthem blaring on the broadcast. The setting was one that Arkansas should have been on this season. 

Regardless, Arkansas’ offense was high-flying, fast and exciting. The Razorbacks drove into the paint and kicked out for smart threes when they were there. The Razorbacks hit each of their first 6 shots and were clinical in the paint. Tramon Mark was efficient and went 3 of 4 from the three-point line before halftime.

Jay Wright said it best: Arkansas looked like an NCAA Tournament team. But Arkansas isn’t, barring the auto-bid for a conference tournament win, an NCAA Tournament team. But the Razorbacks looked like they should have all season.

That’s at least in part ignoring the defense, which Kentucky carved up on multiple occasions. The most notable of those was a 15-3 run in the final minutes of the first half, undoing much of the good the Razorbacks had done. The Wildcats shot 52% from the field and 7 of 14 from deep, but the Razorbacks’ offense kept pace.

There were 10 ties and 11 lead changes in the first half and 12 and 17, respectively, overall. The Razorbacks still lost, but for 20 minutes, there was a glimpse of what this team could have been.

Arkansas battled but wasn’t, and overall isn’t, on Kentucky’s level. The fact is that only one of them has belonged this season, and it’s not the one based in Fayetteville. Both teams at Rupp Arena were built for games like Saturday, but only one has consistently risen to that level

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