Arkansas is riding high after going 5-1 over the last 6 SEC games, including home wins over Florida and Missouri and the first road win of the season. While struggling mightily in a road blowout loss to Vanderbilt and a too-close home win over Georgia, the Hogs are in the conversation as an NCAA tournament bubble team.
Florida had gone 8-0 in conference play until falling on the road in Fayetteville. The Gators bounced back and won 3 in a row before collapsing in Columbia and allowing the Tigers to erase a 13 point deficit. With a guaranteed spot in the tournament locked up, the Gators can't gain a whole lot from SEC wins, but stand to lose quite a bit with SEC losses, and may not even regain a #1 seed if they win out.
Keys to the Game
Arkansas - Road Woes. Get over them. Simple. Enough has been written about this. If Arkansas wants to be an NCAA team they need to play basketball regardless of the venue. If they can only win at home, then they're going to have to play in the NIT.
Florida - 3 pointers. Florida's been averaging about 27 ppg off of three pointers. Florida averages 1.17 points per possession, but that only happens when they make the three ball. Florida lives and dies by the three.
Arkansas - Make it a ball game. The Gators have only played 3 games this season decided by 10 points or less and have lost all of them. If the Hogs can hang around until the end of the game, they have a very good chance of winning a close one. A close game will also require Donovan to keep his 7 guys out on the court the entire game. With Will Yequete out, the Gators have 7 players that average 10 minutes or more. Arkansas has 11. In a physical close game that's close at the end, Arkansas depth could win out.
Florida - Get ahead early... I know thunder stolen in the last section, but this goes even deeper for the Gators. The core 8 players for the Gators this season are very very good, and once you go further down the dept chart, there just isn't enough experience for Billy Donovan to trust them in a close game. The Gators have to get some rest for their key players and can only do that with a big lead. Foul trouble will hurt them too. If Eric Murphy or Patric Young pick up early fouls then it forces extended minutes from Casey Prather, the only viable bench option to spell either big man. Foul trouble to both would prove disastrous.
Arkansas - Turnovers. In the Arkansas win over Florida at the beginning of this magical month of February, The Hogs forced 16 Turnovers (about 5 more than Florida averages) and limited their own turnovers to 8 (10 below their normal average). Yes, play uptempo. Yes, attack the basket and draw fouls on the Florida big men, but hold onto that ball like your NCAA tournament hopes depend on it.
Florida - Defending BJ Young and/or Marshawn Powell. In the first contest, the Gators held the pair to under 24 points, but it still wasn't enough. The real key for teams this season has been to completely shut down one or the other. In the last loss for Arkansas, Powell fouled out with only 5 points and BJ could only score 7 points. Georgia almost had this recipe down, but Anthlon Bell kept the Hogs with a pulse enough to finish the close game. Florida ran up against another athletic big man and talented shooting guard in Columbia this week and let Laurence Bowers and Jabari Brown combine for 29 points.
Summary and Prediction
Arkansas has come out flat in many many games this season including spotting Mizzou 9 points, and blowout losses at Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. Against a team playing for a #1 seed, Arkansas must force the Florida starters to stay on the floor the whole game and harass them with defense. They can't give up the ball and waste possessions on turnovers, and must be in the game until the very end. Arkansas has a signature win this season over Florida in Bud Walton, but that one would take a back seat to how special a win in Gainesville would be on Saturday Night.
This game will come down to the leadership from the Hogs. It's more about the Hogs and their identity than what Florida does. We know what Florida does and what they consistently put out. The Hogs on their best night can win in Gainesville, and on their worst night, they could be seeing Billy Donovan calling out reserves early in the 2nd half. Saturday night, Marshawn Powell will put this team on his back and show the NCAA tournament committee that the Hogs are ready to play on the road. The game will come down to the final minute and possibly overtime. If it goes to overtime, I firmly believe Arkansas depth will win the game for the Hogs, but if it ends in regulation, it will most likely fall on timely Florida 3 point shooting.
Final Score: Florida 68, Arkansas 64