AP Sports Writer
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — John Calipari is admittedly still searching for the identity of this revamped Kentucky team.
The No. 23 Wildcats coach looked down the roster for an answer following a second early season Southeastern Conference loss at Auburn last week, and he was more than pleased with what he found in an 80-66 win over Arkansas on Thursday night.
With junior Derek Willis making only his second start of the season and Tyler Ulis performing at his usual lofty level, Kentucky (14-4, 4-2) put together a nearly wire-to-wire victory — putting the Auburn loss behind it in the process.
Ulis had 24 points to lead four Wildcats in double figures, but it was Willis who provided the stability Calipari has been looking for while finishing with 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
He also added seven rebounds, and Jamal Murray had 19 points and Skal Labissiere 11 in Calipari’s search for the chemistry that led to last year’s Final Four appearance.
“I’m trying to figure out this team, and I’m trying to figure out individuals,” Calipari said. “I’m trying everything to figure out, ‘What is this team?’ Derek Willis makes us a better team, and I’ve got to put people on the bench and get him his minutes.”
The win for Calipari was his first as coach of the Wildcats in Bud Walton Arena, where he improved to 2-4 all-time — including a win while with Memphis in 2003.
Kentucky, more importantly, rebounded from allowing a season-worst 12 3-pointers in the loss at Auburn by holding the SEC’s top shooting team to a season-low two makes from behind the arc on Thursday night.
Dusty Hannahs had 20 points to lead the Razorbacks (9-9, 3-3). Anthlon Bell had 16 and Moses Kingsley 13, but Arkansas was unable to recover following a barrage of early putback dunks by the Wildcats and never solved the Kentucky defense.
Hannahs and Bell entered the game as the SEC’s leading 3-point tandem with 99 long-distance makes between them, but they were held to a combined 2-of-9 shooting from behind the arc by the Wildcats. The rest of the Razorbacks didn’t fare much better while trailing for all but the opening free throw of the game.
Kentucky scored four baskets on putbacks early in the game, including three on dunks. Alex Poythress had two of the putback dunks, while Marcus Lee had another and Willis put the Wildcats up 20-11 with another — giving the junior seven of Kentucky’s first 20 points.
“I really thought we started off the game on our heels,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “… I thought we played on our heels, and that’s not typical of our basketball team.”
The Wildcats, who haven’t lost two straight games since 2014 against the Razorbacks and South Carolina, led by as many as 14 points late in the half and extend that to as many as 18 in the second.
Arkansas entered the game second in the country in 3-point field goal percentage (47.2), but it struggled mightily to find success from the outside in the first half — missing all three of its 3-point attempts as the Wildcats built a 36-24 halftime lead.
“Honestly, (Bell and Hannahs), those two are the shooters,” Willis said. “And we always had someone either switching out on (Hannahs) or always around them. … We were really keying on those two.”
Kentucky: Ulis has now scored 20 or more points in five of his last six games, and he added five assists … The Wildcats finished with 16 offensive rebounds and 19 second-chance points.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks previous low this season for 3-pointers was four in a win over North Florida on Dec. 22. Their 16.7 shooting percentage for the game was also a season low.
Coming off his first career double-double at Auburn, Willis scored in double figures for the fifth time this season. He finished with a career-high 35 minutes, topping the 31 minutes he played last week against the Tigers.