Role Reversal: Now Arkansas Is The Hot Team

NASHVILLE, Tennnessee --- Last year the Florida Gators were the hot team in the Southeastern Conference at tournament time. The momentum of a red-hot February turned into a three-day tsunami in Atlanta that carried Florida to its first-ever SEC Tournament championship. The Gators aren't the hot team coming into this year's tournament --- that's Arkansas, their opponent tonight --- but Florida is probably the one team that everybody fears the most.

Arkansas, which disposed of the Gators in overtime back in February, is the hot team in the league right now. That win over Florida got the Razorbacks started on a run of six wins in seven games including Thursday night's 80-67 thrashing of Georgia in the first round of the SEC Tournament. Getting on a roll at the right time virtually assures the 22-8 Razorbacks of Coach Stan Heath a big Sunday when the NCAA Tournament announces its 65-team field. Win or lose tonight against the 24-6 Gators (9:45 EDT, Sun Sports), Arkansas should be in the big dance so the circumstances are much, much different than they were in Fayetteville.

If you go back to that Saturday afternoon game against Florida in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks were looking like a team bound for the NIT. Some fans were ready to call for Heath's head on a platter until the Razorbacks caught fire against a Florida team that was still battling the effects of Corey Brewer's sprained ankle and Lee Humphrey's dislocated shoulder. No matter, Heath and the Razorbacks pulled out the win and that got them going to the point that nobody in the SEC has played better down the stretch.

In that game in Fayetteville, Brewer had no explosion off the floor --- "I was jumping as high as I could but I couldn't get nearly as high as I normally do," he said. --- and the sore-shouldered Humphrey missed a few shots from beyond the three-point line that he can normally hit in his sleep. Their normal offensive production would have produced a Florida win.

Throw in the fact that Arkansas went to the foul line 42 times compared to just 20 for Florida and you have the active ingredients in a successful upset bid that resulted in a storm the court event for the Arkansas student section at the end of overtime.

That loss to Arkansas started the Gators on a three-game losing skid that took the Gators from mortal locks for a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament to a team that is trying to fight its way back to a four. Florida has righted its ship somewhat with regular season-ending wins over Georgia and at Kentucky last Saturday but the Gators need at least one win, perhaps two, to get a four seed and it might take winning the SEC Tournament to improve to a three. Two wins in the SEC would pretty much seal up Jacksonville as the site for Florida's first round NCAA game.

The mini-roll the Gators are on probably has as much to do with the improved health of Brewer and Humphrey as it does the emergence of Joakim Noah as a dominating force in the Florida lineup. Brewer, the SEC's co-defensive player of the year along with Tyrus Thomas of LSU, has regained the explosiveness that makes him one of the SEC's most entertaining high-wire acts. As the Georgia and Kentucky games proved, Humphrey is almost back to consistency with his jumper. He hit 17 points against Kentucky last week including three critical second half three-pointers that helped Florida pull away to win easily.

With Brewer once again slashing to the basket and using his quickness and leaping ability to dominate on the defensive end and Humphrey hitting jumpers, Florida's offensive options are far more sophisticated than they were in Fayetteville. Humphrey gives the Gators a shooter capable of stretching the defense and that creates cracks and creases for Brewer to slash through. As he proved against Kentucky and Georgia, once he's in the crease he is a threat to either score or dump it off to Noah who usually finishes with a dunk.

Having Brewer and Humphrey back on their games has opened things up on the inside for Noah, who was named first team All-SEC by the league's coaches this week. Naturally aggressive with the ball, he's been consistently getting the ball at the high post and then driving successfully to the rack where he either scores or gets fouled. Against Georgia he scored 19 of his 37 points from the foul line.

When Florida lost to Arkansas in that first meeting, the Gators had to rely on freshmen Walter Hodge and David Huertas for extended minutes. For one stretch of the game, the 6-0 Hodge had to defend against the Razorbacks' 6-8 small forward Ronnie Brewer, their leading scorer and a first team All-SEC performer. On the offensive end, neither Hodge or Huertas can match the production of a healthy Corey Brewer and Humphrey . This time, it's unlikely that the Gators will have to rely on the two freshmen for nearly as much on the offensive end and if Corey Brewer can stay out of foul trouble, Hodge will be matched up with Arkansas guards when he's on the court.

Because the Gators won their final two games of the regular season, they earned a Thursday night rest while Arkansas had to grind out a win over Georgia. The Gators will be rested and they will have all their weapons healthy and ready to go against the Razorbacks. It took a home court advantage, overtime and a dubious foul situation for the Razorbacks to beat the Gators last time. This time, Florida has a few advantages of its own.


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