Gators Begin Crucial Two-Game Stretch

By any measure, the first two-thirds of the Gator basketball season has been a resounding success. Florida has gone from a team many thought would struggle to win half its games to an 18-3 record and top twenty ranking.

Now the Gators face a turning point in the 2007-08 campaign. Florida has consecutive road games against the most talented teams in the SEC. It will go a long way to determining whether or not this squad can actually be title contenders in the second half of the conference schedule.

After six games Florida's 5-1 league mark matches Tennessee and Mississippi State for the best in the conference. Keeping that loss total at one will be a huge challenge as the Gators travel to Fayetteville for a Saturday game with Arkansas followed by a Tuesday battle with Tennessee in Knoxville. One win and the Gators have to be viewed as a threat to defending its SEC title. Two wins and you could easily argue the Gators become favorites to be hoisting the crown in March.

Beating Arkansas won't be easy because in many ways Arkansas is the toughest team in the SEC for the Gators to match up with. The Razorbacks have a conga line of big men, led by 7-foot center Steven Hunter, 6-10 forwards Michael Washington and Darian Townes and newly reinstated 6-8 forward Charles Thomas. Amazingly with all that size, Arkansas' top rebounder is 6-1 sophomore guard Patrick Beverly. That group helps the Hogs enjoy a plus-six rebound advantage.

Arkansas has struggled at times this season under the first year of Coach John Pelphrey's tenure. They opened the season nationally ranked, but have suffered painful losses to Appalachian State, Georgia and South Carolina. As (bad) luck would have it for the Gators, The Razorbacks are coming off their two best performances of the season in winds over LSU (68-52) and Mississippi State (78-58).

Florida Coach Billy Donovan looked at the challenge his team faces.

"We're going against a team that started the season ranked and picked to win the Western Division," he said. "I understand that's all a prediction because no one really knows, but there's enough respect around their team and their players that a lot of people thought very positively of them. You look at the fact that they have six seniors, they have guys who have been through it and they're a big, strong physical team. These guys in a way pose dilemmas and problems unlike any we're faced before because of their experience, their size and the fact we're going on the road and playing them."

Arkansas has excellent balance with four guys scoring in double figures, led by senior swing man Sonny Weems' 14.4. They are not a big time outside shooting team, but they do make about five a game with Beverly's 36 tops on the squad. Even though they have a great deal of size and experience, they are not a particularly deep team. Only seven players play more than eight minutes a game, compared to Florida were the ninth guy (Adam Allen) averages almost a dozen minutes a night.

Donovan discussed how Florida will attempt to deal with Arkansas' size.

"We are going to have to attack the paint," Donovan said. "There may be some shots blocked, but I don't think it needs to deter the fact that we have to have some post presence. We have to be willing to compete and play through those things. Everybody looks at it and asks ‘how are you going to score', and there are some issues there. Maybe through pressing and zoning and transition and maybe changing defenses we can try to overcome some of those things. I don't think we can go down against Arkansas and just sit there and say we're going to play these guys head up. We're going to have to mix and match and do some different things in this game to try to give ourselves and chance and try to put ourselves in the best position to win."

The Gators and Razorbacks have three common SEC opponents to this point, Alabama, Auburn and South Carolina. Florida has outperformed Arkansas against all three, but not dramatically. The Gators are 3-0 against those teams with two of the games on the road. Arkansas is 2-1 and played two of the three at home. Florida was three points better against Alabama, ten points better against Auburn and six points against South Carolina. Average it out and the Gators would about a six point favorite. We'll see if that means anything come Saturday.

Questions or comments? Contact's Larry Vettel

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