Lapses in guarding against dribble penetration is what dealt Western Kentucky a loss at Wright State. It led to the Raiders getting to the free-throw line often in the second half in their come-from-behind victory.
Rick Stansbury watches Arkansas and sees a team that thrives in that setup. The difference is no one has beaten the Razorbacks yet.
“No one has figured out a way to beat them yet,” Stansbury said during a Friday news conference. “… They’re really good in transition and they’re good handing off that basketball in dribbling and passing. They really do that great off that bounce. That bounce will be a challenge for us. That bounce was a challenge the last game.”
WKU (6-3) has the film and hopes a home environment can change that fortune. The Hilltoppers return home after a five-game road swing to face the unbeaten Razorbacks (8-0) at 6:30 p.m. CST on Saturday at E.A. Diddle Arena.
The Hilltoppers are back home from a two-game skid where they would’ve liked to have lived at the free-throw line longer than they did. Stansbury said it’s no secret WKU wants to run its offense through sophomore center Charles Bassey in the paint, but the Hilltoppers have struggled to feed the post and generate chances at the free-throw line.
In last Friday’s loss to then-No. 2 Louisville, WKU didn’t attempt a free throw in the first half. On Tuesday at Wright State, the Raiders had a 20-7 advantage in free-throw attempts.
“We’ve been pretty good at that,” Stansbury said. “We weren’t near as good at Wright State. It didn’t happen as much.”
The challenge with Arkansas is playing against a unique style of four guards that are equally good at multiple positions.
“We came into practice and emphasized that because Arkansas has some good guards that can dribble and make plays off the bounce,” WKU junior Josh Anderson said. “It’s a big opportunity. Undefeated team coming in here, it’s the next game. We’re going to play hard and go out and get the win.”
Saturday’s game marks the end of a combined three-game series between WKU and Arkansas in basketball and football. WKU is receiving a $1.5 million payday from the home-and-home in men’s basketball and the WKU football team’s victory in Fayetteville, Ark., in November.
The Hilltoppers won last year’s basketball meeting 78-77, then the football team won 45-19 for the program’s first win on the road against an SEC team. Saturday will offer an opportunity to sweep the Razorbacks and earn a statement win after setbacks against No. 1 Louisville and Wright State.
WKU is 7-4 against Power Five teams and 3-2 against ranked Power Five teams since the start of the 2017-18 season. The Hilltoppers won that last setup in Diddle Arena against then-No. 16 Wisconsin last December.
Arkansas, which is receiving votes in the AP Top 25, will be the first opponent to visit Diddle Arena in five contests dating back to Nov. 18 against Campbellsville. The Razorbacks also introduce a stretch of current top 100 teams WKU will face in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. Arkansas sits at No. 28 and will be the highest-ranked team in that rating WKU will face this season besides top-ranked Louisville. After an exhibition against Kentucky Wesleyan, WKU faces No. 89 Rhode Island and No. 86 Belmont to close out 2019.
Arkansas boasts wins against C-USA teams Rice and North Texas in its first two games to open the season. An overtime win against Georgia Tech is its highest-ranked victory in the KenPom rankings (69).
“Very obvious we’re playing an SEC team and not just another SEC team, but a very good SEC team,” Stansbury said. “They’re kind of different with their personnel. They’re not going to beat you with what they call great size. They’re going to beat you with quickness and skill level.”
Sophomore 6-5 guard Isaiah Joe and junior 6-5 guard Mason Jones lead the Razorbacks with 15.8 and 18.1 points per game, respectively. Joe is one of 20 named to the 2020 Jerry West Award watch list, which honors the nation’s top shooting guard.
The Razorbacks also have 6-3 point guard Jimmy Whitt Jr., a graduate transfer from SMU who started his career with the Razorbacks.
“People talk about size, and size can be overrated a whole lot,” Stansbury said. “They’re going to win the war most nights offensively because they create matchup problems. They can steady the ship and win the war defensively and that’s why they’re 8-0. They’ve won it at both ends for the most part.”