In the last two weeks, Florida basketball fans thrice had the heavy-hearted excitement of game day spoiled by COVID-19 cancellations, missing matchups against Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU.
But the fourth time appears to be the charm, as the Gators set to play their first game since Feb. 3 against No. 24 Arkansas Tuesday night at Bud Walton Arena.
UF will need to quickly shake off the rust, however, as the Razorbacks became one of the most in-form teams in the country and currently sit second in the conference.
Arkansas walked face-first into the SEC gauntlet, starting conference play 2-4 and suffering three double-digit losses. But the Hogs righted the ship nicely, winning six straight conference games and becoming a well-rounded ball club with few statistical weaknesses. They rank inside the top-35 for adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, play at one of the fastest tempos in the country and rebound well on both sides of the ball.
Tuesday’s trip to Fayetteville, Arkansas, is an excellent resume-boosting opportunity for Florida as one of two remaining Quad 1 games on its schedule. UF will need to bring its A-game to the Natural State and best the Razorbacks in these key areas.
Arkansas has several longer guards that rotate around the perimeter, but this season’s primary facilitator has been redshirt senior Jalen Tate. The Northern Kentucky transfer has been a boom or bust running the point for the Razorbacks this season and averaged an impressive 4.4 assists a game while committing three costly turnovers per contest.
Tate’s performance has been the biggest variable for Arkansas’ success, finishing with an offensive rating above 100 just once in its five losses while making poor decisions with the ball. The senior committed 20 turnovers across the Razorbacks’ last four losses while failing to register more than three assists in those games.
Arkansas junior J.D. Notae also plays at the point but has showcased similar ball security issues and registered a negative assist/turnover ratio in every loss this season. The Razorbacks struggle with ball movement even in wins and post the 210th best assist/field goal ratio in the country. Mike White’s emphasis on high-intensity defense should yield plenty of turnovers for Florida Tuesday.
A Shawn Bradley doppelganger resides in the paint at Bud Walton Arena as pale-skinned, 7-foot- 3-inch Connor Vanover has come into his own over the last three games.
The sophomore has cracked double-figures in every contest in that stretch while showing impressive finesse last weekend against Missouri with a nifty reverse layup and a key assist off of high-low action at the end of regulation. Vanover’s lanky build means that Florida centers Omar Payne and Colin Castleton only give up about 15 pounds guarding the Razorback seven-footer.
Vanover has struggled to maintain post position against much smaller players, so Florida’s big men should have the size to battle with the California transfer on the blocks.
The more concerning aspect of Vanover’s game is his perimeter shooting. He’s shot the three-ball at a 35% clip over two years of collegiate basketball and comes into Tuesday’s matchup shooting exceptionally well from range.
Neither Castleton nor Payne have proven themselves to be strong perimeter defenders. While Vanover isn’t a high-volume perimeter shooter, it will be interesting to see how the UF centers respond to a versatile matchup at the five.
Arkansas’ freshman phenom Moses Moody has been spectacular through the first 18 games of his college career and scored nearly 17 points a game, leading the Razorbacks with an offensive rating of 118 and ranking fifth in the SEC in minutes percentage.
It’s hard to find a better freshman this year in the SEC, but Moody has developed an achilles heel in the last few games: foul trouble. The Little Rock, Arkansas, native has picked up at least three fouls in the last three games, which forced him to sit for 11 minutes against Missouri and Kentucky.
The Razorback freshman generally guards the three, so a focus on Moody could revitalize wing players Scottie Lewis and Anthony Duruji, who have both struggled with their production and confidence over the last several games.
Florida’s return to basketball will tip-off at 7:00 P.M. Fans can stream the action on ESPN2.
Contact Declan Walsh at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact him on Twitter @declanaw