The Florida Gators are coming off a stunning 71-69 loss to South Carolina in the O’Connell Center last Saturday, one that doubled as a painful collapse and the first truly bad loss of their 2018-19 campaign.
Now would be a good time for the Gators to have a chance to play a less formidable opponent in the hopes of getting right before a brutal SEC schedule.
Except South Carolina was that less formidable opponent — and Wednesday night’s trip to Arkansas (8:30 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN) constitutes the beginning of one of the roughest stretches of SEC play the Gators will face this winter.
Arkansas is, as has ever been the case under Mike Anderson — who has now been leading the Razorbacks for eight years, which seems unbelievable to me — a tough team to play. The Razorbacks like to press and love to run, and even if Anderson’s scheme has shifted from the days when everyone thought the Nolan Richardson disciple would play precisely the same “40 minutes of hell” defense, they have a way of turning opponents over.
These Hogs, though, may be Anderson’s stoutest on defense in the half court. Arkansas ranks in the top 50 nationally in effective field goal percentage allowed, three-point field goal percentage allowed, block percentage, and steal percentage, and miss being in the top 50 in two-point field goal percentage allowed by a single spot. They pressure and foul a lot, so opponents get free throws — but, perhaps owing to the fatigue of playing these Hogs, those free throws are only going in about 66 percent of the time, much better than the national average.
And it’s not like Florida needs help missing free throws.
Future NBA player Daniel Gafford is still the Hogs’ star, and his ability to get to his spots inside and physically imposing 6’11”, 230-pound frame have combined to make him an effective scorer. He could be better from the line, where a 60 percent clip helps mitigate the ill effects of Gafford getting there for an average of five free throws per contest, but were it not for the utter freakishness Duke’s Zion Williamson, Gafford would have a case as the best athlete in college basketball.
And he has more help this year than he did last year, from rangy forward Reggie Chaney, a block machine, and sharpshooter Isaiah Joe, whose next three this year will be his 50th.
The Hogs have knocked off Indiana, given Texas a scare, and defeated Texas A&M in College Station thus far this year, along with a host of other less impressive non-conference wins. But Bud Walton Arena has not been an impregnable fortress so far: Decent but otherwise unremarkable Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky teams have gone into Fayetteville and emerged with wins.
For Florida to do the same, it will almost certainly need more assertive games from most of its rotation than it got against South Carolina. It’s hard to imagine foul trouble will sideline Kevarrius Hayes for nearly the full game again — it will be shocking if Florida plays in another 48-foul regulation game again this year without a lot of fouling to extend the clock, even against foul-happy teams like Arkansas — but players like Natural State native KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson really need to step up if Florida is going to be competitive in SEC play.
Florida coach Mike White called those players — and much of the rest of his roster — out earlier this week, saying that he knew what he was getting every day from Hayes and freshman Noah Locke and Andrew Nembhard and categorizing the energy and effort levels of the rest of his players as a “crapshoot.”
And White’s right, as a team with a lot of talent that often lacks for dogged play faltered down the stretch against a more aggressive South Carolina team last Saturday and has had trouble building leads and closing out foes all year.
Proving to themselves that they can summon that sort of resolve in one of the SEC’s toughest venues would be a good thing for the Gators to do tonight, win or lose.
It does not get any easier from here, and they will need that skill if they are going to keep their season afloat.