#12 Florida Gators (23-6) vs Arkansas Razorbacks (22-7, 11-5)
Gainesville, Florida; Exactech Arena
March 1, 2017; 7 p.m. EST
With a win, the Gators secure the #2 seed in the SEC Tournament in Nashville and at this point in time, that has to be the focus. As the #2, Florida would be in the opposite bracket from Kentucky. With a couple of losses, this week, UF could drop into a three-way tie for second and that could mean the Gators get the #4 seed and in the same bracket as 9th-ranked Kentucky (24-5, 14-2 SEC).
Two wins this week and a Kentucky loss and UF would tie Kentucky for the SEC regular season title. That’s a nice but improbable thought so the focus has to be on an Arkansas team that has rebounded from a midseason swoon when the Razorbacks lost three out of four games to win their last five. Florida coach Mike White knows the Razorbacks are playing at a different level than they were back in December when the Gators knocked them off, 81-72, in Fayetteville.
“We told our guys yesterday, this is a different Arkansas team,” White said Tuesday afternoon. “This Arkansas team has won five in a row. They’ve won, I believe, their last three in a row on the road if I’m not mistaken. And they’ve won road contests at some really tough places. I mean they’ve won at Vanderbilt, at Tennessee, and at South Carolina off the top of my head. You’ve gotta be a good team to do that.”
During the recent run, the Razorbacks have been getting it done on the offensive end, averaging 83 points per game. Three-point specialist Dusty Hannahs (14.7 points per game, 39% on 3-pointers) has been steady as a rock, but juco transfers Daryl Macon (13.7 points, 39.2% on 3-pointers), Jaylen Barfield (12.2 points per game) and Arlando Cook (3.2 points, 2.4 rebounds per game) have all had a hand in the resurgence.
Back when the Gators played the Razorbacks in December, those three weren’t the factors that they are now.
“I think some of it is they had one, two, three junior college transfers that are all, in my opinion, markedly better than they were whenever we played them — it seems like five years ago — late December,” White said. “… the junior college guys are just better now.”
With the strong perimeter game from the guards, 6-10 Moses Kingsley hasn’t had to score as much and his focus has been on protecting the rim. Kingsley is backed up by 6-9, 260-pound Trey Thompson, who takes physical to a whole new level. With those two guys taking care of the paint, it enables the Razorbacks to gamble and pressure on the perimeter.
When the Gators beat the Razorbacks in December, John Egbunu and Kevarrius Hayes were the 1-2 inside punch that combined for 15 points, 17 rebounds, 2 blocked shots and 2 steals. Egbunu is gone for the season now so Hayes will have to carry the load but White is hoping to steal some minutes off the bench from Schuyler Rimmer and Keith Stone. If 6-11 freshman Gorjok Gak gets healthy, he’ll have to contribute as well.
“A couple guys shave to step up,” White said. “Schuyler is going to be depended on to play at a higher level. Gorjok Gak has to get healthy. Keith Stone needs to get back and giving us production as he was in midseason. Keith and I have had a couple meetings the last few days, in fact Keith had his best practice yesterday that he's had in a while. Hopefully, he can regain that some of that confidence, even though he’s different of course. We’ve got to be able to utilize his girth on the glass. And offensively, he gives us something different.”
The Gators will have to shoot better than they did at Kentucky (26-71 from the field overall and just 10-30 from the 3-point line) against the Hogs with their “40 minutes of hell” full court pressure defense that is holding teams to 33.8% from the 3-point line and 42.4% overall from the field. The offense will get a boost if Canyon Barry’s ankle has healed and he can get some lift on his jump shot. He’s played limited minutes the last two games.
“He’s not 100 percent and I’m not sure he is today or will be by game time,” White said. “Ankle sprains can swell up on you and it takes a little bit of time to get the stiffness out and full range of motion back and your explosion back that guys like him rely on. He’s got a really good first step, which allows him to draw a bunch of fouls. Athletically, he’s just not the same right now, but working hard to get back.”
Florida can balance out any offensive deficiencies by sticking it to the Hogs defensively, as they did to seven of the teams they faced during their 9-game winning streak that was ended this past Saturday at Kentucky. The Gators have to keep the Hogs from lighting it up from the 3-point line as they did in wins over South Carolina and Ole Miss.
The Gators’ defensive game plan has to start with making Hannahs work for every shot.
“Dusty Hannahs is one of the best scorers in our league,” White said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t play 36 minutes a game. If he did, I think he’s be one of those … he’d receive probably more national recognition.”
But Hannahs isn’t the only one. Four Razorbacks average in double figures, prompting White to note, “Offensively, as good as they were in December, they’re even better now.”
FLORIDA NOTES: It’s Senior Night at the O-Dome and the Gators will honor Kasey Hill, Justin Leon, Canyon Barry and Schuyler Rimmer in pregame ceremonies … The Gators are 11-2 against Arkansas all-time at the O-Dome … Florida has won the last six meetings with Arkansas … Arkansas native KeVaughn Allen has lit up his home state in two games this season. Allen scored 19 points and hit 5-7 from the 3-point line when the Gators beat Little Rock in the first game at the renovated O-Dome and then followed that up with 21 points and 5-9 on 3-balls in the win over Arkansas in Fayetteville.