The Arkansas Razorbacks stopped the bleeding last Saturday and halted a three-game losing streak with a tenuous 65-63 victory over Missouri at Bud Walton Arena.
The Hogs made the plays they had to make in the final minutes to secure the victory on their home court. That’s good news for Mike Anderson’s team that is 12-5 overall but just 2-3 in SEC play.
However the bad news is that the Razorbacks are back on the road Wednesday at Florida for a 6 p.m. game against Mike White’s Gators (12-5, 4-1 SEC) at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla. The game will be televised by ESPN2.
Arkansas at Florida
Date: Wednesday, Jan. 17
Time: 6 p.m.
Location: O’Connell Center, Gainesville
It is the first contest in a five-game SEC stretch where the Razorbacks will play four games on the road. The Razorbacks do have a home date against Oklahoma State in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge on Jan. 27. However after hosting Ole Miss this Saturday, the Razorbacks play at Georgia on Jan 23, at Texas A&M on Jan. 30, and at LSU on Feb. 3.
That would be a daunting schedule for any team in the league, much less one that has not won a true road game this season.
The Razorbacks have won three of four games at neutral sites this season, but the Razorbacks lost at Houston (91-65), at Mississippi State (78-75), and at Auburn (88-77).
“We’re in a race,” Anderson said in speaking of the Razorbacks’ conference schedule. “We have nine at home and nine on the road. We have to play them as the schedule is written out. What I’m concerned with is for us to get better each time we play. You find out a whole lot about your team on the road.”
Arkansas’ history of playing at Florida isn’t good. The Razorbacks have lost 12 straight to the Gators at the O’Connell Center. In fact no Razorback player was alive the last time the Hogs beat the Gators on the road, 94-85, in their 1994-95 run to the national championship game, according Arkansas’ basketball notes package.
Anderson was, of course, an assistant to head coach Nolan Richardson in that game in which Corliss Williamson led the Hogs with 20 points. He experienced several of those losses before he went on head up his own programs at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri, and he’s seen his own Razorback teams come up short in Gainesville.
“We’ve had some opportunities, but we just didn’t finish them. Let’s hope this will be the time,” Anderson said. “We need to hang around and hang around and be in the game to have that chance to finish.”
To be within striking distance at the end of the game, Anderson said the Hogs’ must bring energy to the floor, but also play smart basketball.
“We have to shoot the basketball [well], and we’ve got to defend,” Anderson said. “We have to get to the free-throw line and make those free throws. We can’t turn the ball over. If you turn the ball over or make a mistake, they are a team that will make you pay.
“Their transition offense is very explosive. They got so many guys that are capable. Every guy on their team is capable of knocking down a three-point shot. Our transition defense has to be on point. We have to keep them off the boards, and we have to keep their runs at a minimum. And we have to get our own runs.”
All of that is easier said than done, of course, particularly against a team as talented and gritty as Florida.
What’s scary is that the Gators haven’t played their best basketball in SEC play, yet they are 4-1. Ole Miss tripped Florida up, 78-72, at Oxford, Miss., last Saturday for the Gators’ first conference loss.
Florida has suffered a spate of injuries to their inside players that has limited them throughout the season. Sophomore center Gorjak Gak suffered a concussion in the first half to the Ole Miss game, leaving Florida with just six scholarship players to practice with this week, according to White.
In contrast, Arkansas freshman forward Daniel Gafford continues to get better. Gafford proved huge for the Hogs in the late going against Missouri. His work not only put a team-leading 15 points on the board, but his aggressive play at the rim fouled out both Missouri big men Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon.
Anderson credited the talented freshman for his work, but also credited his teammates for setting the table for the burgeoning big man.
“We have to help him and put him in position where he can be successful,” Anderson said of Gafford. “He has to continue to do the things he’s done to be successful. He has to continue to run the floor and use his length as an offensive rebounder. He’s got to shoot free throws better because he’s going to go to the line. He’s adjusting to the physicality of the game. I think he’s playing bigger than he was earlier in the year.”
Coming into the season, North Little Rock native KeVaughn Allen was expected to be one of the best Gators, but he has struggled this season with his three-point shooting, hitting just 29 percent on the year and in SEC play. He’s averaging just 10 points a game when a year ago, he was one of the best scorers on the Gators’ Elite Eight team.
“We have guys who are struggling,” Anderson said. “It’s not a surprise to me [about Allen] because that happens, but as a coach, I know he’s very capable. He has the ability to turn that around in a snap. We hope he doesn’t do that in this game right here.”
Allen’s backcourt mate Chris Chiozza, though, is playing well. The Gators’ point guard is one of the best players in the league. He sets the table for his teammates, but he is also able to do the damage himself with his deft touch from three-point range and his uncanny quickness and speed at pushing the basketball. His penetration is deadly whether he dishes for a dunk, pitches it outside to set up a trey, or drives to the basket.
While the Gators may not be playing their best basketball with their inside struggles, Chiozza is the type of guard that has given the Razorbacks trouble this season and last. Containing him will be difficult.
While the Razorbacks play best when they play fast, they have to be smart enough to work for good shots and not shoot themselves out of this game early or late. Ball movement will be key, and this is a game where Gafford and senior forwards Trey Thompson, Dustin Thomas, Arlando Cook can be inside offensive options.
Personally, I don’t give the Hogs much of a chance in this game. I can see Chiozza making pulled pork out of the Razorbacks’ defense, which has been sporadic most of the season. It’s doubtful the Hogs’ full-court pressure will bother the Gators, if Anderson even elects to press.
Offensively, Arkansas’ guards have dribbled the air out of the ball in SEC play, and movement without the basketball has been so nonchalant that the offense has at times grinded to a halt.
Gafford is getting better and better but he’s not experienced or skilled enough for the Razorbacks to run their offense through him yet, and it’s doubtful the guards are mature enough to facilitate that, anyway.
That said, if the Hogs can pull off a win a Florida, it would be a huge for the program, and it might me the key for Arkansas to being .500 or better in SEC play at the midpoint of league play.
While the SEC might get as many as six teams in the NCAA Tournament this season, it appears the middle of the league is going to be thick with comparable teams. The Hogs will need to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.
Beating Florida at the O’Connell Center would be a fantastic start to doing that.
However, Arkansas would have to play their best game of the season to upend the Gators on their home court, and even that might not be good enough.