By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Although the Arkansas Razorbacks have turned a corner in the SEC in recent years — the Hogs are second only to Kentucky in total wins, SEC wins, SEC road wins, SEC tournament wins, and NCAA tournament selections since the beginning of the 2014-15 season — they could not seem to crack the Florida code and were on an 8-game losing skid against the Gators heading into the SEC tournament in St. Louis last March. The Razorbacks finally broke through, 80-72, to reach the SECT semifinals, and now they look to make it two straight wins against the Gators who invade Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville for a mid-week SEC matchup.
Arkansas (10-3, 1-0 SEC) is looking for its first home win over Florida (8-5, 0-1 SEC) in nearly 5 years as the teams are expected to tip off shortly after 7:30 p.m. CT on Wednesday in a game being televised by the SEC Network.
“We had our opening SEC game and now the Florida Gators come in here,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said during his Monday press conference. “Coached by Mike White, a very hard-nosed, athletic team. Great perimeter players. Very athletic team. So it’s going to be another opportunity to go out and continue to get better. We had a good win at (Texas) A&M but that one’s over with. Now you go to the next game and it’s a race. Everyone starts out 0-0. Now we’ve got that out of the way and we go against a Florida team that’s really balanced scoring and played a tremendous schedule. They had a tough loss against South Carolina.”
Against Florida, Arkansas is 2-9 (including 1-3 at home) under Anderson, who’s in his eighth season as Head Hog. The last time Arkansas defeated Florida at home was on Feb. 5, 2013, when the Gators came in ranked No. 2 in the nation and left Fayetteville with an 80-69 loss. The Razorbacks have hosted the Gators only twice since then, losing 84-82 in overtime during the 2013-14 season when Florida was ranked No. 10 in the nation and eventually swept through the SEC 18-0 on its way to the Final Four, and losing 81-72 during the 2016-17 season when the Gators came in ranked No. 25 in the nation on their way to the Elite Eight.
But this Florida team is unranked and coming off a 71-69 home loss in its league opener against South Carolina, the only SEC team with an overall losing record at 6-7. The Gators have played only one true road game, an 81-60 loss in their season-opener in early November against in-state rival and then-No. 17 Florida State. Since then, Florida has picked up neutral-site wins over Stanford, West Virginia, and Florida Gulf Coast while losing close games against Oklahoma (65-60) and Butler (61-54) at neutral sites, as well as a narrow 63-59 home loss against then-No. 10 Michigan State.
KeVaughn Allen, a 6-2 senior guard from North Little Rock, leads Florida in scoring at 10.3 points per game to go with 2.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.7 steals while shooting 42.5% field goals (including 32.7% from 3) and 81.3% free throws. Allen has seen his scoring production and shooting percentages steadily go down since his All SEC sophomore season when he had the luxury of playing with since-departed facilitating guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. Still, Allen has been at his best playing against Arkansas. In six games, he’s averaged 15.5 points while shooting 47.5% field goals (including 50.0% from 3) and 90% free throws — ALL far exceeding his career numbers as well as his best-season numbers.
Noah Locke, a 6-3 freshman guard, averages 10.0 points and 2.2 rebounds while shooting 42.5% from 3 for the Gators. Andrew Nembhard, a 6-5 freshman point guard from Canada, leads Florida in minutes at 30.4 per game and is averaging 7.5 points, 5.8 assists (nearly a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio), and 2.5 rebounds. Kevarrius Hayes, a 6-9 senior forward / center, averages 6.9 points (70.6% field goals), 6.2 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks. Jalen Hudson, a 6-6 senior wing, is averaging only 6.7 points (24.0% from 3) and 17.2 minutes after his junior-transfer campaign in which he averaged 15.5 points (40.4% from 3) and 26.6 minutes. Keith Stone, a versatile 6-8 junior combo forward who played well against Arkansas in last season’s SEC tournament, is averaging 7.0 points (45.2% from 3) and 4.6 rebounds. As a team, Florida averages 71 points on 44.0% field goals (including 35.0% from 3) and 65.2% free throws, and the Gators average 12 assists, 9 steals, 5 blocks, and 12 turnovers per game.
“Of course coming in here they’ve got a young man that played in the state of Arkansas, KeVaughn Allen,” Anderson said. “He had a big game here the last time he played here so I’m sure he’s looking forward to the homecoming. But they’ve got more than just KeVaughn. Obviously Jalen Hudson, we’ve seen what he’s capable of doing. The last time we played these guys was in the SEC Tournament and we were fortunate to win there. But that has nothing to do with this year’s team. We’re different and they’re different. It should be a great, great atmosphere. I’m looking forward to the opportunity for our guys to go out and continue to get better. I think that’s going to be the big key. Our bench play is really starting to show itself and I think that’s going to be the strength of this basketball team. The guys as they start out have got to come out and get to a good start. And I thought that was the one of the things that took place at A&M. And so we have to do the same thing here.
“Defense has got to be engaged. They’ve got a lot of shooters. The Locke kid is a knockdown shooter. We know Jalen can shoot it and KeVaughn can score. Stone has had some pretty good games against us. They do a really good offensively of spreading you and attacking. We’ve got to keep them off the boards. They are a very athletic team. So again it should be a great atmosphere in Bud Walton Arena. I’m looking forward to our fans really coming in and helping us start off the SEC at home in a good fashion.”
Arkansas has won three consecutive games — all in come-from-behind fashion — after a bumpy mid-December that saw the Razorbacks go 1-2 with both losses coming at home. It adds up to a 6-game stretch where Arkansas (averaging 81.2 points per game on the season) failed to break the 80-point scoring threshold while struggling against multiple zone defensive looks and also getting drummed on the glass (Arkansas was a combined minus-28 rebounding and minus-38 in second-chance-points in their final three non-conference games to close out December). At least in their most-recent win — 73-71 at Texas A&M on Saturday in their SEC opener — the Hogs willed a season-high 47 rebounds against a strong rebounding Aggies squad, good for plus-5 overall on the boards, plus-6 in offensive rebounds, and plus-2 in second-chance-points.
“Trust me, we do emphasize it,” Anderson said of rebounding. “Okay. It ain’t like we just did it last week. But I think it’s something that was really made clear to our guys and understood that there is a sense of urgency when you get to conference play. There are a lot of missed shots because teams are so familiar with you. Your defense is going to be better but the ending part of defense is really getting in there and putting bodies on people. The other night our guards did a good job of coming in and rebounding. But if you look at Daniel, he had 11. Adrio had five or six. Gabe had seven. Then you get those guards chiming in at four or five apiece. And the thing I was really impressed with was the team rebounds: We had eight, they had two. Those are those long rebounds that we’ve been missing out and people get and get second chance points on us. So we limited again. Again when you talk about defense you have to finish it off with rebounding.”
Sophomore center Daniel Gafford had his third consecutive double-double — 11 points and 11 rebounds — against Texas A&M. Its was his fourth double-double in Arkansas’s last five games, and it was his seventh on the season after having only three double-doubles in 35 games as a freshman. Two of those in ’17-18 came against Florida — 14 points and 11 rebounds in an 88-73 loss in Gainesville and 16 points and 12 rebounds in that 80-72 win in the SEC tournament in St. Louis. Gafford leads Arkansas and is Top 5 in the SEC in these categories: scoring (17.0 points per game), rebounding (9.5), blocks (2.4), and field goal percentage (64.4%).
For the first time in his Arkansas career, sophomore-transfer point guard Jalen Harris led the Hogs in both scoring (15 points) and assists (9) in the win over Texas A&M. He also had ZERO turnovers, he made his second 3-point shot in as many games after making only two triples in the first 11 games of the season, and he made some timely shots — a driving lay-in to give Arkansas a 32-31 halftime lead (the only time Arkansas has led at halftime in College Station since Texas A&M joined the SEC), and another driving lay-in that gave the Hogs their biggest lead, 69-61, with 1:35 to play in the game. Harris leads the SEC in assists (6.8, tied with Auburn’s Jared Harper) and assist-to-turnover ratio (6.4-to-1).
“For me it’s really whatever I see I try to go get, so even if it’s a risky pass but I feel like I can get it through there then I’m going to try it,” Harris said when asked about his low-risk / high-reward facilitating so far in ’18-19. “Coach A has a lot of confidence in me to take care of the ball most of the time, so just in practice I will try different things to see if it works. If it works against my guys then I know it’ll work in a game because they know what I like to do and they read basically what I read Just knowing I can do it in practice then I know I can carry it over into a game.”
Junior forward Adrio Bailey didn’t mince words when talking about Harris’s value as a facilitator and floor leader.
“Playing with a point guard like Jalen, I wish I would have had him in high school,” Bailey said. “He’s my dream point guard, can score when he wants to, distributes and makes plays. He’s the point guard I always wanted and now that I’ve got him we can only go up from here.”
Arkansas freshman guard Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith joins Gafford as the only Hogs to score in double-figures in all of Arkansas’s 13 games. Joe is second on the team and seventh in the SEC in scoring (15.5 points per game), first on the team and seventh in the SEC in steals (1.6), and he leads the league in 3-pointers made (49) and is third in 3-point field goal percentage (45.4%). Sophomore wing Mason Jones is third on the team in scoring (13.1 points), second is rebounds (5.1), second in assists (3.2), and first in free throw percentage (79.2%).
Freshman combo guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro has been the most consistent contributor off the bench, and he scored a career-high 14 points against Texas A&M. Sills is averaging 16.2 minutes, 5.2 points, 1.9 assists, and 1.4 rebounds while shooting 50.0% field goals (including 40.0% from 3) and 63.2% free throws. Sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien had arguably his best game as a Razorbacks against the Aggies, finishing with 6 points, a career-high 7 rebounds, 2 drawn charges, 1 block, 1 steal, and 1 assist.
After Florida, the Hogs will host LSU at Bud Walton Arena at 5 p.m. CT on Saturday before going back on the road the following week against No. 3 Tennessee and Ole Miss.
Hog food for Hog thought …
— Deja 1-for-2? Arkansas led Texas A&M, 72-71, after a putback by Aggies’ senior forward Christian Mekowulu with 2.2 seconds remaining. Hogs freshman guard Isaiah Joe was then fouled before the ball could be inbounded, he made the first of two free throws, and after missing the second the Aggies — who were out of tiemouts — were forced to launch a three-quarters-court desperation heave that fell well short at the buzzer. The ending was reminiscent of Arkansas’s 73-72 win over now-22nd-ranked Indiana at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville back in November, when sophomore wing Mason Jones made his first free throw but intentionally missed the second with 2.4 second left, giving the Hoosiers — who were out of timeouts — only a desperation heave from three-quarters-court as time expired.
— After starting the season 6-1 and climbing to No. 32 on the NCAA’s NET rating — which replaces RPI this season to help the NCAA tournament selection committee determine at-large bids and seeding — Arkansas had a bumpy 1-2 stretch with both losses coming at home that briefly moved the Hogs outside of the NCAA NET Top 100, but three consecutive wins have helped elevate the Razorbacks to No. 70 (through games played Jan. 6). Arkansas’s opponent on Friday — Florida (8-5, 0-1 SEC) — is currently ranked No. 55 after falling 22 spots following the Gators’ 71-69 last-second home loss Saturday against South Carolina.
— Arkansas is 1-0 against the current NCAA NET Top 26 — the win being that 73-72 home triumph over NCAA NET No. 20 Indiana in November — with 7 more games (5 on the road, 2 at home) upcoming against the current NCAA NET Top 26 … at No. 6 Tennessee, at No. 8 Texas Tech, at No. 12 Kentucky, at No. 14 Auburn, home against No. 19 Mississippi State, and home-and-away against No. 26 LSU.
— Arkansas has 9 upcoming games (6 at home, 3 on the road) against the current NCAA NET Nos. 36-84 — home-and-away against each of No. 36 Ole Miss, No. 59 Vanderbilt, and No. 66 Missouri, plus home games against No. 52 Alabama, No. 55 Florida (on Wednesday of this week), and No. 84 Georgia.
— The Razorbacks overcame a 54-51 deficit with 7:31 to play against the Aggies on Saturday, and their win marked their third consecutive come-from-behind victory (includes a 73-70 home win over Texas State on Dec. 22 after trailing by 13 points, and 76-65 home win over Austin Peay on Dec. 28 after trailing by four points midway through the second half).
— The Razorbacks are 2-0 in true road games on the season — that’s the best road start in Anderson’s eight campaigns at Arkansas — and they’re 3-1 in games played outside Bud Walton Arena.
— Arkansas is now 5-3 in one- or two-possession games inside of 2 minutes to play — the wins coming against Indiana (12-3, currently ranked No. 22 by the Associated Press), Texas-San Antonio (8-7), Texas State (12-3), Austin Peay (10-5), and Texas A&M (6-6), and the losses coming against Texas (10-4), Western Kentucky (8-7), and Georgia Tech (9-5). The three losses were by a combined 7 points, and Arkansas led inside of the final minute against both Texas and Western Kentucky, and it led inside the final two minutes against Georgia Tech.
— Gabe Osabuohien, the Hogs’ 6-8 sophomore forward from Southwest Christian Academy in Little Rock by way of Toronto, has been a huge factor in 2 of the Hogs’ come-from-behind wins in their last 3 games. In wins over Texas State (73-70 at home) and Texas A&M (73-71 on the road), Osabuohien combined for 40 minutes, 10 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 drawn charges, 1 steal, and 1 block. Osabuohien, who’s averaging the fewest minutes (12.7 per game) among the 9-deep rotation, leads the Hogs in drawn charges with 11 on the season.
— So much for a rebirth at the free throw line for the Razorbacks! As poorly as Arkansas shot from the free throw line in its first eight games — 62.7% — the Hogs’ 72-plus-% effort over a 4-game stretch brought the team up to 65.8% heading into the Texas A&M game. But alas, the Hogs rediscovered their old inefficient ways at the line, making only 11-of-22 (50%) against the Aggies that included a 4-of-10 finish in the final minute of a tight game.
— Defense continues to be Arkansas’s strong suit — 38.9% opposition field goal shooting, 29.7% opposition 3-point field goal shooting, 16.2 opposition turnovers per game (for plus-3.2 per game), 185-110 steal/blocks advantage on the season.