With the sting of Saturday’s loss to South Carolina just starting to wear off the Gators will look to right the ship on Wednesday when they take on All-SEC caliber big man and future NBA lottery pick Daniel Gafford and the Arkansas Razorbacks. After kicking their SEC season off with a narrow 73-71 victory over Texas A&M they’ll be looking to go 2-0 and after seeing the Gators’ crushing loss to the Gamecocks they probably see blood in the water.
Losing to South Carolina in the fashion they did had to have hurt the Gators badly but they can’t afford to let their struggles to compound and lose to Arkansas. After Arkansas the Gators see two fantastic clubs in Tennessee and Mississippi State and if they lay an egg against the Razorbacks an 0-4 start to the league schedule isn’t hard to imagine and a hole that deep could be too tough for the team to ever dig their way out of, particularly with an even more brutal schedule coming up in February.
Not receiving any of the national recognition of some of the other great first-year players in the league, Isaiah Joe might be the best freshman you haven’t heard about. Averaging 15.5 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists while shooting 45.4% from three he provides scoring punch on the perimeter that many thought Arkansas would lack this season. At 6’5” he can get his shot off against pretty much any defender and if you give him any space on the outside you can be sure he’s going to put a shot up. He has struggled to score at the rim, like many freshmen do, so the Gators need to run him off the line and force him to be a scorer inside. Speaking of inside scoring…
Daniel Gafford is a monster down low and could be the biggest issue for the Gators. Putting up 17.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game he is a bully on the inside that is tough to stop when he gets the basketball. Not just relying on sheer size like he did as a younger player he’s got some good touch and can also make the right pass when double teams come. He’s also super impactful on the defensive end as a rim protector providing 2.4 blocks per game. His shot blocking allows Arkansas’ perimeter players to be really aggressive on the outside knowing they have Gafford behind them to mop up any mistakes and Florida’s guards will have to be ready for that ball pressure and ready for the mammoth of a man Gafford to meet them at the rim if they get penetration.
Arkansas has an offense that can be really difficult to defend at times and it stems around how unselfish they are with the basketball and how willing they are to swing the ball to create better driving lanes. They average 18 assists per game (as opposed to the Gators’ 13 assists per game as a reference point), a testament to their dedication to ball movement. Jalen Harris is a point guard excellent at distribution with 6.8 assists per game on the season, a number made even more impressive by the fact he’s only averaging 1.1 turnovers per game. Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, and Desi Sills are also excellent passers that contribute to the culture of unselfishness and all average multiple assists per game. Having so many passers on the floor could challenge the Gators if they aren’t locked in defensively, especially when it comes to them dumping the ball down low to Gafford for an easy dunk.
After taking on a South Carolina team that likes to play fast the Gators don’t get a rest as Arkansas is an even faster team, currently 18th in the country in average possession length. Jalen Harris loves to push the ball in transition to try to get layups or hit shooters trailing the play so the Gators will have to be disciplined in getting back defensively and matching up in time to not give up easy shots. If they can take Arkansas out of transition a lot of their offense will be neutralized and the Gators can focus on what they do best and that’s defending in the half court.
After some challenging games recently I’d love to see the Gators shake up the starting lineup and I’d particularly like to see Keyontae Johnson get the nod in place of Keith Stone. In the current starting lineup of Andrew Nembhard, KeVaughn Allen, Noah Locke, Keith Stone, and Kevarrius Hayes there just aren’t enough guys that can beat their man off the dribble and make Coach White’s dribble drive offense work and I think a possible remedy would be getting Johnson into the mix. He has the athleticism to beat guys off the bounce and also is underrated as a passer. Getting Stone some easier matchups against bench units could help him get going and a change in the rotation might be what this team needs to get another fresh look. I’d also consider getting Deaundrae Ballard into the starting lineup and potentially moving Noah Locke back to the bench. Now I’m definitely not saying Locke needs to be demoted for bad play or anything but the bench was quiet against South Carolina and Noah Locke is instant offense that I think might be best utilized off the bench. Getting Ballard into the starting lineup would add more drivers to the first unit which I think it needs and then Locke could be the featured scorer of the second group. I’m not sure we’ll see these changes but I think a different look could be what this team needs.
It’s probably too early to label this is a “must win” game but man, it’s an important one to get. It will be tough to win at Bud Walton Arena but a 0-2 start could be devastating for the Gators. There is a chance Florida could struggle with the defensive pressure of Arkansas which is a definite concern and though the Razorbacks haven’t been super efficient offensively by the metrics the eye test shows a team that can fill it up when they move the basketball. I’m expecting a close game and one that could come down to the final possession.