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Florida vs. Arkansas, Game Thread: Gators’ return after long layoff comes in tough trip

Florida’s first game in two weeks may be the hardest left on its schedule.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators men of the hardwood could be forgiven for wanting to ease back into their 2020-21 schedule after a third extended pause — and a second due to COVID-19 issues — wiped out games against LSU, Tennessee, and Texas A&M over the last three weeks.

But ease probably isn’t going to be the order of the night at Arkansas on this Tuesday (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2 or WatchESPN).

The Razorbacks are the highest-ranked team in KenPom left among the mere five foes the Gators are left to face — at No. 25, they’re the only team currently rated higher than No. 28 Florida itself — and are playing at Bud Walton Arena, where they are almost always a tough team to topple. This year, Eric Musselman’s Hogs have lost just once at home, to Missouri way back in the first week of January, and they’re now on a better run of form, having won six of seven and avenged that loss to the Tigers last Saturday in overtime in Columbia.

And they’re winning in more than one way of late, with two of those six wins coming without cracking a full point per possession and the other four featuring 1.1 PPP or better. Wings Moses Moody and Jalen Tate have carried a lot of the scoring load, point guard J.D. Notae has cut his turnovers, and forward Justin Smith’s return to the lineup has provided some extra punch. Add in seven-footer Connor Vanover emerging as an scoring threat in addition to being a supreme rim protector, and Arkansas is humming at the offensive end.

But Florida was humming at both ends for much of late January, before a surprising loss to South Carolina in which the Gators couldn’t control the boards or make shots ended a four-game winning streak, and the Razorbacks, while fast, are more good at many things than great at any particular aspect of basketball.

Preventing Smith from racking up offensive rebounds and getting Vanover in foul trouble would go a long way on this night, but so would the Gators shooting like they’re capable of: Even after an evening of clangs against the Gamecocks, only Florida ranks in the top five in the SEC in field goal percentage both within and beyond the arc.

Getting those shots to fall again will give Florida a fine shot at felling the Hogs.