The Arkansas Razorbacks entered Thursday night’s game at the Kentucky Wildcats facing the unpleasant proposition of needing a signature win over the Wildcats at Rupp Arena to really feel good about their chances of earning a bid into the NCAA tournament. Kentucky rarely loses at home under head coach John Calipari, and the Wildcats were playing with revenge on their minds after being defeated in overtime at Arkansas earlier this season on a buzzer-beating putback dunk.
But for Arkansas, it turns out the road to the NCAA tournament just got a little easier. The Razorbacks once again needed overtime, but they also emerged victorious again, knocking off 17th-ranked Kentucky 71-67 at Rupp. The win over the Wildcats could be a really good omen for the Razorbacks, who hadn’t beaten Kentucky on the road since February 9, 1994 — the year Arkansas finished the season 30-3 and won the national championship.
A national championship might be a bit much to ask from these Razorbacks, who don’t possess talents like Scotty Thurman and Corliss Williamson. But at the very least, Thursday’s win over the Wildcats and the season sweep, puts the Razorbacks in much better position to get an invite to the Big Dance. Now 19-9 and 8-7 in the SEC, Arkansas finishes the conference regular season with three games that at the very least it could win, against Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Even a 2-1 finish (Georgia is 10-5 in the SEC) puts the Razorbacks at 21 wins for the season and leaves them 10-8 at the end of the SEC campaign.
Thursday’s win solidifies Arkansas’ hold on fourth place in the conference, and given that the SEC isn’t particularly deep this season, the Razorbacks should be expected to at least win their first game in the SEC tournament. If seeds held, a fourth-seeded Arkansas would have to battle Florida in the SEC semifinals, so the run likely ends there, though Arkansas only lost by two in overtime to Florida earlier this season. But at a potential of 22 wins and two wins over Kentucky, it would be really difficult to keep Arkansas out of the NCAA tournament. There’s no denying the importance of Thursday’s win, which was sparked by Michael Qualls with 14 points and 12 points, four rebounds and four assists from Rashad Madden. If Arkansas makes the NCAA tournament, Razorback fans should look back on Thursday’s win as the win that opened the door.