Game preview: Arkansas (16-9, 4-8 SEC) at Florida (16-9, 8-4 SEC)

Pig Trail Nation

LITTLE ROCK — Life without Isaiah Joe has painfully translated to a 4-game losing skid for the Arkansas Razorbacks, and if history is any indicator a trip to Gainesville, Fla., for a mid-week SEC tilt against the Florida Gators is no prescription for getting well.

Arkansas (16-9, 4-8 SEC, NCAA NET No. 48) plays at Florida (16-9, 8-4 SEC, NCAA NET No. 35) with the opening tip set for 6 p.m. CT on Tuesday in a game being televised by ESPNU.

The Hogs are on a 4-game losing streak — part of a stretch of winning only twice in their last nine games — but compounding matters is the fact Arkansas has not beaten Florida in a regular-season game since February 2013 (an 80-69 Hogs’ victory in Fayetteville). Arkansas did manage to knock off Florida in the 2018 SEC tournament, but including that outcome the Gators are 10-1 in their last 11 meetings against the Hogs. The last time Arkansas won in Gainesville was 25 years ago (February 1995).

On a more positive note, Arkansas has been a solid road team in going 4-5 on the season with both of the Hogs’ “Quad-1” wins coming in road victories over Indiana and Alabama. A win over Florida on Tuesday would give the Hogs a third Quad-1 win.

Although Joe — a preseason All SEC pick who had an arthroscopic procedue to his right knee on Feb. 4 — has missed 5 games (including the last 4) during the Hogs’ current 2-7 skid, he still ranks 9th in the SEC at 16.0 points per game and his 72 made three-pointers are the second most in the league and only four fewer than league leader John Petty, Jr., of Alabama. Joe injured his knee during a 34-point outing in Arkansas’s come-from-behind 76-72 win at Ole Miss in January, which at the time elevated the Hogs to 13-2 overall and 2-1 in league play as Joe was third in the conference in scoring at 18.2 points per game and his 3-point shooting on the season was a respectable 59-of-165  for 35.8%. 

Aside from the scoring and shooting punch that has been missing in Joe’s absence, his presence on offense forced teams to defend him closely on the perimeter and helped create driving lanes for teammates. He was a low-turnover offensive player who economized dribbling and shot-taking. With others having to step up with increased roles and minutes, the pressure of creating offense has disrupted an Arkansas squad that was once ranked in the top 5 nationally in turnover margin. His length and effectiveness as a defender has been missed as well.

Joe has returned to practice as he continues to rehabilitate his knee, and though he traveled with the team to Gainesville he is not expected to play against the Gators.

Picking up the slack in what often turns into a one-man shooting/scoring show is junior guard Mason Jones, who has so far authored what is arguably the best individual season in the SEC. Jones leads the league at 20.8 points per game; he leads the nation in free throws made at 172 and attempted at 208; and he leads the Razorbacks in rebounds (6.0), assists (3.3), and steals (1.7). He has six games of 30 or more points scored this season — including two of 40 or more points — and he has reached the 30-point milestone in 4 of Arkansas’s last 6 games. 

Problem is, Arkansas is only 1-5 in SEC games when Jones scores at least 30 points. 

Senior grad-transfer Jimmy Whitt, Jr., has ranked in the Top 10-15 in the SEC in scoring most of the season (currently 12th at 14.7 points per game), but due to some recent injuries his field-goal effiency has dropped from over 52% to 49.3% after a collective 14-of-46 (30.4%) spanning the Hogs’ current 4-game skid. 

Guards Desi Sills and Jalen Harris and forwards Adrio Bailey and Reggie Chaney have had some big moments and contributions, but each has been inconsistent, not only from game to game but from half to half. 

As a team during this rough patch, Arkansas’s biggest issues have been rebounding (that’s been the case all season), turnovers, free throw shooting, and transition defense. The Razorbacks haven’t been bad in each category in every game, but they’ve not been good enough in each game-to-game to scrap out wins in what has turned into a late-season of near misses.

Arkansas’s only lopsided loss was last Tuesday at Tennessee (82-61), otherwise the team’s other 8 losses have been by a combined margin of 31 points (that’s a 3.9-point margin per loss). On the flip side, in Arkansas’s 14-2 start to the season, the Hogs won six close-call games against Georgia Tech, Northern Kentucky, Austin Peay, Valparaiso, Indiana, and Ole Miss (combined winning margin was 30 points in those games, or a 5.0-point margin per win).

“We have no margin for error,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said immediately following his team’s last-second, heartbreaking loss at home, 78-77, against Mississippi State on Saturday. “I’ve been saying it since … you know, we had some errors and it cost us the game.”

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Scouting Florida: The Gators have been an enigmatic bunch relative to their talent and experience, but winning 4 of their last 5 games has been timely with March Madness looming just ahead.

Senior grad-transfer Kerry Blackshear, Jr. — who Arkansas recruited in the spring when he announced he was leaving Virginia Tech — leads Florida with 13.6 points and 7.7 rebounds in 27.9 minutes per game. The 6-10 forward from Oralndo, Fla., is shooting 44.1% from the field, including 31.3% from 3, and 79.6% free throws.

Sophomore 6-5 forward Keyontae Johnson — he had 20 points and 12 rebounds in Florida’s 66-50 win over Arkansas in the SEC tournament last March — is averaging 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.1 steals in 30.2 minutes while shooting 52.9% field goals, including 39.3% from 3, and 78.5% free throws. Sophomore guards Andrew Nembhard (11.7 points, 5.5 assists, and 1.1 steals in 32.8 minutes) and Noah Locke (10.8 points in 30.0 minutes) are a tough backcourt matchup for any team, and Locke has recently caught fire from distance, making a combined 11-of-18 (61.1%) while averaging 20.0 points last week in wins over Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.

Freshman guard Scottie Lewis is averaging 28.1 minutes, 8.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game. Guards Tre Mann and Ques Glover and forward Omar Payne are each playing at least 14 minutes per game while combining to average 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per outing.

As a team, Florida is second in the SEC in three-point shooting at 34.4%, while Arkansas continues to lead the nation in three-point field-goal defense at 25.3%. The Gators average 72.8 points per game (8th in SEC), 35.9 rebounds (7th in SEC), 11.8 assists (11th in SEC), 6.0 steals (11th in SEC), 4.0 blocks (7th in SEC), and 12.0 turnovers while shooting 45.0% overall field goals (4th in SEC) and 72.5% free throws (7th in SEC).

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Up next for the Razorbacks: After Florida, Arkansas returns home for a Saturday matchup against Missouri at BWA.

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