There are only two longer road trips in SEC play for Florida Gators teams than the one to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to take on one squad of Razorbacks or another, and they both terminate at schools that defected from the Big 12.
There are few venues in all of the league — all of college sports, really — more formidable than massive Bud Walton Arena, which can house nearly 20,000 fans in one of college basketball’s largest arenas.
But this is the fun holiday present Florida’s men’s basketball team was given: A date with Arkansas, at Arkansas (9 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN), in the opener of conference play.
The Gators will see a distant mirror’s reflection on the court in Fayetteville. Arkansas isn’t best at shooting, but at securing second shots and trotting to the foul line, where the Hogs get almost a quarter of their points — and slightly more than they get from beyond the arc. And the Razorbacks’ defense, still subscribed to Nolan Richardson protégé Mike Anderson’s revamped version of his predecessor’s “40 Minutes of Hell” philosophy, presses and presses, forcing teams to spend more than 18 seconds on offense, on average — but struggles at times to control the glass.
Florida, through a non-conference schedule that featured exactly one home game, is very similar. The Gators are better at protecting the ball on offense, and much better at pilfering it on defense, but their strengths are much like the Hogs’, and their weaknesses even more similar.
Arkansas has arguably put together the second- or third-best non-conference performance in the SEC to date, with the league’s matchups with Big 12 teams in January still outstanding. The Hogs fell to Minnesota, but that’s the only blemish on their 11-1 schedule. They knocked off Texas away from home, and count a good Houston team among the nine outfits that came to Bud Walton and left with a loss.
Florida has played as many home games — one — as Arkansas has played road games, but the Gators will also be playing just their third true road game on Thursday, and their first outside Florida. With John Egbunu back in the rotation, if not necessarily the starting lineup, the Gators have the personnel to withstand the Hogs’ hell.
Whether they will is a question for the late evening on this wintry Thursday.