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Kentucky vs. Arkansas: Who wins if John Calipari’s new-look Razorbacks faced Mark Pope’s balanced Wildcats?

The 2024-25 college basketball season is just over six months away, but it’s never too early for projections. John Calipari’s decision to depart his post at Kentucky for the vacant job at Arkansas last month created a ripple effect throughout the sport that resulted in Mark Pope returning to his alma mater after spending five seasons at BYU.

Let’s say, just for fun, we convinced the two teams to meet somewhere in the middle for a scrimmage this month (Poplar Bluff, anyone?). They’ll of course face off at a to-be-determined time and location during SEC play in 2024-25, but we want answers now. Who would be favored in one of college basketball’s most anticipated games of the season? Who would win? 

Arkansas and Kentucky will feature rosters that will look drastically different from the previous season. Since Calipari’s arrival in Arkansas, he’s helped land five former Kentucky pledges (Karter Knox, Zvonimir Ivišić, Boogie Fland, Adou Theiro, and Billy Richmond) to pair with former Tennessee big man Jonas Aidoo and FAU star guard Johnell Davis.

Pope is building a roster that features zero returning scholarship players. His first transfer portal commitment came from incoming freshman guard Collin Chandler, who spent the last two years on a Mormon mission. Chandler was Pope’s highest-rated signee (No. 33 overall) during his tenure at BYU. 

Kentucky has landed high-profile commitments from Dayton sharpshooter Koby Brea, West Virginia guard Kerr Kriisa, San Diego State guard Lamont Butler, and Oklahoma guard Otega Oweh. All four players project as impact players as Kentucky enters a new era.

While both teams are expected to add more players via the transfer portal in the coming weeks, here is the case for each team if the first matchup happened today with the current rosters.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: APR 14 Kentucky Coach Mark Pope Press Conference

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Why Kentucky would win

Kentucky’s projected starting lineup

Bench options: G Lamont Butler, C Brandon Garrison and G Collin Chandler

The case for the Wildcats: The biggest flaw of the 2023-24 Kentucky roster was the defense. The Wildcats finished with the No. 334 scoring defense (79.7 ppg) which ranked fourth-worst among all Power Six teams. Ironically, Arkansas’ defense was one of the units that ranked worse than Kentucky (79.8 ppg). While both rosters look different, Kentucky has done more this offseason to improve the defense. 

Williams and Butler are both standout defenders in their respective positions. Brea is one of the best shooters in college basketball, and Kriisa led the Pac-12 in assists when he was at Arizona during the 2022-23 season. Last season’s Kentucky team finished No. 2 in scoring offense (89 ppg) and knocked down 9.9 3-pointers per game, good enough for 16th. Under Pope, BYU finished third in 3-pointers made (11.1) and 41% of its total points came from distance, per KenPom.com. BYU was No. 14 in adjusted offensive efficiency and finished with the 22nd-ranked scoring offense (81.4 ppg). 

Kentucky currently has more bench depth than Arkansas. You can argue that Butler should be in the starting lineup over Kriisa, but the latter is one of the best pure passers in the country that will help facilitate Pope’s offensive system that did wonders at BYU. 

Chandler might be the biggest wildcard of the entire group. He hasn’t played a minute of college basketball yet and was a highly-touted recruit in the 2022 cycle. Arkansas has the talent advantage (like most Calipari-led teams do) when facing another opponent in either nonconference or SEC play. The combination of Kentucky’s improved defense and the new offensive system is why they would win this game today. And for what it’s worth, I’d set the line at Kentucky favored by 2.5 points. — Cameron Salerno

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Arkansas vs Kansas

USATSI

Why Arkansas would win

Arkansas’ projected starting lineup:

  • G: Boogie Fland
  • G: Nelly Davis
  • G/F: Karter Knox
  • F: Adou Theiro
  • C: Jonas Aidoo

Bench options: C Zvonimir Ivišić and G Billy Richmond

The case for the Razorbacks: Arkansas’ high-end talent has a chance to make John Calipari’s first season something really, really good. If you needed the best score-first guard in the transfer portal, FAU star Johnell ‘Nelly’ Davis fit the bill. If you needed the most well-rounded big man, Tennessee transfer Jonas Aidoo fit the bill.

Arkansas got both of ’em.

Aidoo’s defensive versatility is legit. He can protect the rim at a high clip. Tennessee opponents shot just 53% at the rim when Aidoo was on the floor. But he can guard ball-screens in multiple ways, and offensively, his well-rounded game is perfectly suited for modern hoops. He owns a feathery touch in the paint, makes good decisions in 4-on-3 scenarios and when his engine is revved up, Aidoo can be the best big man on any floor.

Kentucky transfer Adou Thiero is an excellent wing handler who can create advantages on the fly. He gets downhill in a hurry and provides oodles of rim pressure.

Pound for pound, Arkansas’ talent is ahead of Kentucky’s at this stage of the offseason and I’d have the Razorbacks favored. Will that remain intact by November? That remains to be seen. Talent doesn’t always win ball games, but it sure doesn’t hurt. How ballyhooed youngsters like Karter Knox, Boogie Fland, Zvonimir Ivisic and Billy Richmond assimilate into the mix with Arkansas’ portal superstars will make or break the Hogs’ ceiling.

Davis and Aidoo would certainly be the best two players on the floor in a potential Arkansas-Kentucky duel, and Thiero wouldn’t be far behind that top duo. — Isaac Trotter 

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