Expectations were high for the Arkansas Razorbacks entering this season with a skilled and senior-laden roster and they have shown at times they are talented enough to challenge for the top of the SEC. Coming off last season’s NCAA Tournament where they played eventual National Champion North Carolina down to the wire (losing 72-65 in a game that was close all the way until the end), Arkansas is an experienced roster with a savvy head coach in Mike Anderson that is ready to make it’s mark on college basketball. The Gators welcome the Razorbacks into Gainesville on January 17, so before that happens let’s look at what to expect.
Season To Date
Arkansas had a strong non-conference showing with their only losses coming to a hot Houston squad and defending champions North Carolina who also booted them from last year’s NCAA Tournament (actually, fun fact, the last three NCAA Tournament appearances by Arkansas have all ended with them losing to UNC in the Round of 32. Wild.). They had a few impressive wins over Minnesota, Connecticut, and Fresno State, but none was bigger then a 92-83 victory of Oklahoma on a neutral floor. Trae Young fever was already in full effect around the world of college basketball and the Arkansas guards proving they could keep up with him established the Razorbacks as a team that would be sniffing around the Top 25 all season long. Currently sitting at 2-3 SEC play hasn’t been kind to the Razorbacks as they have taken losses to Mississippi State, Auburn, and LSU and only barely snuck out wins over Tennessee (95-93 in OT), and Missouri (65-63).
No Place Like Home?
Bud Walton Arena is one of the best venues in college basketball but it might be too comfortable for the Razorbacks as they have had some serious difficulty playing anywhere but there. Though they have gone 2-1 in neutral site games, Arkansas has not yet won an away game. Not only have they not won an away game, they have gotten beaten by some pretty sizeable margins in road games they should have been in such as losing to Houston 91-65 and Auburn 88-77. Home court is always a big advantage but hopefully it means even more than normal for the Gators against a team that really struggles on the road.
Mike Anderson has this group humming offensively, utilizing the skills of senior guards Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon, and Anton Beard to orchestrate his scoring concerto. You’re not going to want to hear this, but… *whispers* Arkansas’s offense looks a lot like the Ole Miss offense that Florida struggled with and *whispers even quieter* I think they’re even better. Capitalizing on the strength and intelligence of their ball handlers, Arkansas their guards to break down defenders on the perimeter while movement happens away from the ball to free up shooters and players cutting towards the hoop. One of the best isolation scoring teams in the country, Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon use their shifty dribbling ability to fake out defenders and get them moving the wrong way before exploding towards the rim. When they get penetration, forwards Daniel Gafford and Adrio Bailey know it’s their time to shine. Waiting for their defender to step up and help, they shift unassumingly towards the basket waiting for a simple drop-off pass for them to get an easy layup or thunderous dunk. The primary defense needs to be excellent on Barford and Macon as Arkansas gets a lot of their offense off of those guards simply breaking down their man and either finishing themselves or passing off to an open teammate. When you can score that easily you don’t need to run a lot of set offenses and it has led to them being the 19th fastest offensive team in the country by possession length averaging 15.2 seconds per. Florida has done really well at making opposing teams work for a good shot (teams have the 336th slowest possessions against the Gators) so this will be an interesting matchup up to see if Arkansas can get the quick shots they want or whether Florida can make them have to work long and hard for an open look. Playing quick isn’t just a focus for Arkansas in the half court as they can really burn you on the run with some of the best transition numbers in the country. Shooting 57.4% and getting fouled 14% of the time, this is an area where Florida really needs to be careful. Luckily for the Gators, Chris Chiozza has taken great care of the ball and hasn’t allowed teams to get easy steals and layups so Florida should be able to limit transition opportunities against, something they have done an excellent job of all year.
A skill that often goes along with experience is defense, but that hasn’t been the case for this veteran Razorbacks group. Giving up a ton of baskets from in close, beyond the arc, and from the foul line, this defense has holes that the Gators can really look to exploit. The first area of focus for the Gators needs to be transition. Often hunting for easy points around the rim, Arkansas has had a lot of trouble getting back in transition and allows a lot of fast break points, nearly 24% of their points given up. As much as Florida is a team that prides themselves on playing fast the Gators haven’t actually been very lethal in transition, floating near the middle of pack nationally in transition shooting percentage at 44.7%. KeVaughn Allen hasn’t been helpful on that front on shooting 36.1% in transition so hopefully this can be a game where he can get some easy buckets on the fast break that could even help out his confidence in his all-around game. Another area Arkansas struggles with is perimeter defense, particularly against longer wing players that can use their wide crossovers to get around defenders. Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon are both players that Florida should look to attack on that end of the floor, both on dribble drive attempts while in motion offense and in screen and roll where they would have to chase their man off of a pick. 6’11” Freshman Daniel Gafford is responsible for mopping up the mistakes of his perimeter defenders and he does that job very well averaging 2 blocks per game. Any defensive success that Arkansas has is predicated on Gafford being in the game so if Florida is able to attack the hoop and get him in foul trouble it would be extremely beneficial. Luring him out of the paint to guard pick and rolls would also be a great way to open up driving lanes so look for the Gators to make him work that way. Ole Miss was a questionable defensive team that Florida couldn’t take advantage of so look for an improved effort on Wednesday against the Razorbacks.
Deaundrae Ballard looks like he’ll be good to go, and hopefully he’ll be able to provide some hustle on the defensive perimeter. Gorjok Gak will likely be out, forcing the Gators to probably play more small ball lineups featuring Egor Koulechov at power forward. Luckily this Arkansas team doesn’t play a ton of size so it shouldn’t be a huge issue, but the Gators’ frontcourt players that are healthy will be forced to play a ton of minutes. John Egbunu, Isaiah Stokes, and Chase Johnson have all started non-contact practice and having one or more of those guys enter the lineup soon would be a fantastic help.
Jalen vs. Jaylen
Jalen and Jaylen both lead their respective teams in scoring (Hudson 16.2 PPG, Barford 18.4 PPG) and whoever has the better game could be the deciding factor in this contest. They also could very well have opportunities to guard each other throughout this game making it a truly marquee matchup. Hudson isn’t always a focused defender and if he is tasked with trying to slow down Barford he’ll need to really up his defense intensity from what we have seen.
Keys for the Gators
Guarding on the perimeter. Arkansas relies on so much instant offense from players beating their man off the dribble and finding open teammates so if that is taken away and the Razorbacks need to go through their offensive sets then I like Florida’s defensive chances a lot more. Offensively, this is another game where Keith Stone has a favorable matchup and I hope he rides the confidence of some really good consecutive games and has a strong showing. His shooting and touch around the hoop adds more weapons to Mike White’s arsenal and he has been picking up the slack from guys like KeVaughn Allen who haven’t been scoring.
Congratulations Are in Order…
Florida has officially taken the title of highest free throw percentage against as opponents have shot 78.2% from the line against the Gators. Some of this is due to Florida’s tough strength of schedule, but a lot of it has to do with some good old-fashioned bad luck. Arkansas is a really poor free throw shooting team (66.5%, 304th in the country) so if they have a really good game from the free throw line then you know Florida is cursed.
Do you think the Gators can handle the Razorbacks? Leave a comment here or post on the Gator Country forums.