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Florida vs. Arkansas, Game Thread: Gators transition to SEC stretch run against Hogs

There are only three weeks of SEC play left. Florida would like to stay in gear through them.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

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?