Stepping Forward

Arkansas (8-9, 1-1) can accomplish a lot of things Thursday night if it can get a win over Florida (12-5, 1-2) in a 8 p.m. game at Bud Walton Arena that will be televised by ESPN.

It is admittedly very small steps in the big scheme of things.

But nevertheless the University of Arkansas (8-9, 1-1) can accomplish some positive things moving forward at Bud Walton Arena Thursday night with a win over Florida (12-5, 1-2) – some of which it couldn't last season.

The Razorbacks could match the win total they had in the 16-game SEC slate of a season ago, build on top of Saturday's convincing win over visiting Alabama and announce their home arena would no longer be a place that few teams fear to tread.

"It would be nice," Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey said. "There is a confidence to winning against two very good teams and then obviously being able to play well at home on our home court that means a lot to us. It's important."

Florida head coach Billy Donovan, whose team started off the season 8-0 before going 4-5 in its last nine games, is expected the same turnout he saw during the Razorbacks' 80-61 win over the Gators two seasons ago.

"I think that going to Arkansas and playing at their place is always a great challenge for any team," said Donovan, who had Pelphrey as an assistant on his staff. "They have got a great environment there."

Donovan doesn't look at the Razorbacks subpar non-conference record – which included three home losses in one week to Morgan State, East Tennessee St. and South Alabama – and see an automatic win.

"I think probably some of the losses earlier in the year were a product of one, very, very good competition played against," Donovan said, "and number two, depth in a lot of areas."

Those UA losses came without point guard Courtney Fortson, who has sparked his team after missing the first 14 games due to suspension and personal issues.

Pelphrey says he is not surprised that Fortson has played so well in his return to the team.

"I think we all know he's a good basketball player," Pelphrey said. "I think he has done a good job of staying on a pretty even keel. He's done a great job of it in practice in terms of not becoming frustrated, going on to the next play, i think that helps him play well. And obviously when he's in transition, some of the passes he's made - find Rotnei and Mike and Marshawn in certain situations, it's been good."

Donovan, whose team beat Arkansas 80-65 in Gainesville and 73-58 in the SEC Tournament last season, is aware that Fortson makes the Razorbacks must better in transition and overall.

"I think when you look at Arkansas' team, certainly Fortson in transition, their team in transition, they do a terrific job in transition," Donovan said. "I think they have got great minutes and Marshawn Powell is probably playing as well as any freshmen in this league and probably hasn't gotten enough attention in my opinion with what he has done in the first two SEC games. He has played terrific.

"I think you have a Powell and a forward-center in Michael Washington that has been a guy in this league for a long time," Donovan added. "I remember last year when they came to our place he was averaging a double-double in the league.

"And then I think you have without question as good a shooter in the country as Rotnei Clarke," Donovan continued. "I think they have a very well-balanced team."

That's the same sentiment that Pelphrey has about the Gators, who have five players averaging in double figures.

"I think they're very well coached," Pelphrey said. "They do a great job of sharing the basketball, great spacing, they put a lot of pressure on you with the shooting and the passing. They are very, very fast in transition and then from a defensive side of it you'll see a lot of pressing and a lot of matchup zone, which also forces you to be organized and read defense and be able to react.

"I think that's probably the toughest thing about Florida," Pelphrey said. "They're going to make you think the game of basketball. They're going to make you have to perform and make plays on both sides. Very, very difficult team to play. It will take our best effort both offensively and defensively to have a chance to win."

Florida is led by its backcourt of freshman star Kenny Boynton (14.6) and sophomore Erving Walker (12.1).

Boynton joins Powell and Kentucky's John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and Demarcus Cousins as perhaps the five freshmen making the biggest impact in the league. "I think Kenny Boynton comes out of high school as a highly regarded player and he has been a great kid to coach because he is egoless, he is all about the team, he wants to do whatever he can to help," Donovan said. "He obviously came in with a reputation of being a prolific scorer, but the thing I really respect about him is that he really tries to defend and plays both ends of the floor. He had a very, very good basketball IQ."

Pelphrey is impressed with Boynton.

"Kenny is leading Florida in scoring, and playing a tremendous amount of minutes on a very good basketball team against a very good schedule in a place that has got a very good tradition," Pelphrey said. "To be able to come through the door and do those things, and to play for Billy, to be coached and understand how demanding that can be for a first-year player is pretty impressive.

"I think Marshawn has done a lot of the same things for us," Pelphrey said. "Both of those young men have bright futures."

Powell and Washington will be battling inside with 6-10, 240-pound Georgetown junior transfer Vernon Macklin (10.1) – who joins 6-8, 220-pound junior Alex Tyus (12.0) and senior Dan Werner (6.2) in the starting frontcourt with 6-9 junior Chandler Parsons (11.0) as the top reserve.

"He's a good player - big, physical," Pelphrey said. "Obviously he has a level of experience because of having played before at this level and then he sat out. A tremendous, tremendous talent coming out of high school."

Donovan, who said that Macklin seems to be getting more comfortable lately.

"I think Vernon just gives us a little bit more size and athleticism and strength in our frontcourt than maybe we have had the last couple of years," Donovan said. "Vernon, in the first two SEC games due to some foul trouble we were not able to keep him on the floor as we would have liked. Last game against LSU here, he was able to play more significant minutes and make a bigger impact for our team."

Florida lost its first two league games at Vanderbilt and to Kentucky before bouncing LSU 72-58 last Saturday.

"I think we are still a work in progress," Donovan said. "I think that our team can get better. We felt like we played against two very good teams to start SEC in playing at Vandy and then playing Kentucky at home. I think there were some things we did really, really well in those games and some things we did very, very poorly. I think for our basketball team, the margin for error is not a great margin."

Arkansas leads the SEC in free throw shooting at 75 percent in league play, with Washington and Powell combining to hit 17 of their 20 combined.

"When you make free throws, it helps secure victory and it keeps victory within grasp," Pelphrey said. "Obviously we've kind of done that. We had a chance and then we won one. Free throw shooting is certainly a big part of that."


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