The Florida Gators are coming off their best week of play in quite some time.
This week, they face perhaps their most critical stretch of the season yet — and will hope that their form can continue.
The Gators smashed both Texas A&M in College State and Vanderbilt in Gainesville last week, locking down in the second half to pull away from the Aggies and burying Vanderbilt with a scorching first half, with Noah Locke — a magnificent 11-for-18 from three in his last two contests, matching exactly Michael Frazier’s performance in his record-setting single game against South Carolina in 2014 — figuring heavily into both wins.
And after escaping a stretch of can’t-lose games with only one damaging loss to Ole Miss, the Gators now they get Arkansas (7 p.m., ESPNU or WatchESPN) and Kentucky in a pair of potential resume-building contests.
Saturday’s showdown will, of course, be the bigger game this week. But Florida’s Tuesday night tilt with the Razorbacks could be a doozy in its own right.
The Gators are playing better of late, to be sure, with four wins in their last five games, but Arkansas’s four-game losing streak coming into Gainesville is deceptive: The Hogs only really got drilled at Tennessee, and lost the other three games either in overtime (Auburn, Missouri) or by a point (Mississippi State). And though Eric Musselman’s team won’t have Isaiah Joe — out for all of this losing streak — against the Gators, it will have the explosive Mason Jones, who has capitalized on Joe’s absence to put up 38- and 40-point nights over the last fortnight, doing massive damage from behind both the foul and three-point lines.
And while in years past, Florida might have sicced Arkansas native and Hog-killer KeVaughn Allen on Jones and hoped for the best, this year’s team might have its hands full with him, given its spotty perimeter defense. Jones is also playing as a fourth guard of sorts in an undersized offense that has been very content to sacrifice rebounds: That lack of height has been made up for by quicker defenders who can chase shooters and hound ball-handlers, and so the Hogs are holding opponents to the worst shooting percentage from distance in Division 1, a stingy 25.1 percent, and forcing bushels of turnovers.
For Andrew Nembhard, who had been playing quite well prior to a foul-plagued night against Vanderbilt, and for Locke, who could very well stay as hot as he has been, this will be a challenge much like the one they faced against Musselman’s Nevada team in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
Florida passed that test. Will the Gators pass this one?