Florida coach Mike White entered this week wondering if he would have enough healthy players to practice to prepare for tonight’s game against Arkansas.
The news is getting slightly better on the depth front, but the short-handed Gators will still be challenged when they host the Razorbacks at the O’Connell Center.
Freshman guard Deaundrae Ballard will likely be back after sitting out UF’s last two games with an illness. But sophomore center Gorjok Gak remains in concussion protocol and is doubtful after suffering a concussion last Saturday against Ole Miss.
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson isn’t afraid to go to his bench while playing an up-tempo style. Anderson uses a rotation of 10 players in order to keep players fresh to play transition offense and full-court pressure defense.
“Coach Anderson, at all of his stops, has been known for that; utilizing all their guys, known for being deep and staying fresh,” White said. “They’re going to play really hard. Their bench is going to play really hard. We’ve got to do our best to match that intensity and we’ve got to do our best to watch guys’ minutes.”
Lack of depth was a factor in the second half of UF’s 78-72 loss at Ole Miss on Saturday. With Gak out for the last 20 minutes with a concussion and center Kevarrius Hayes and guard Jalen Hudson in foul trouble, Florida was forced to play senior guard Egor Koulechov 38 minutes and senior point guard Chris Chiozza for 37 minutes. The Gators allowed Ole Miss to shoot 60 percent from the field and score 47 points in the second half. Fatigue played a factor in some defensive breakdowns.
Chiozza said he’s back to 100 percent after dealing with a bout with strep throat last week and is ready to take on as many minutes as needed to help the Gators win.
“Every game is a huge test,” Chiozza said. “Arkansas is a good team. They’ve got a lot of good players and they have a fast pace to their game. We’re just going to play our game and try not to let them change our pace too much. They’re going to try to speed us up and press a lot. We’re just going to try to slow them down a little bit and not let them get any easy shots.”
Led by speedy senior guards Anton Beard, Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, Arkansas has played the fastest offensive tempo in the SEC in conference games. The Razorbacks lost senior big man Moses Kingsley last year, but replaced him with an impressive freshman post player, 6-foot-11, 234-pound inside scorer Daniel Gafford.
“They’re very much up-tempo, but they’ll also try to pound you in the paint a little bit,” White said. “Gafford has been terrific. One of the best young front-court talents in the country. And he’s not the only one they’ll post. They’ll also post some wings and guards at times. Barford will occasionally take his man into the post sometimes, as well. They’re very balanced in their scoring. Scoring threes, scoring free throws.”
The Razorbacks are second in the SEC in scoring at 85.1 points per game, but have slumped of late, averaging 58 points over their last two games. Still, the Gators can’t take anything for granted. Defensively, Florida has been unable to find the balance between guarding the post and defending the 3-point line. At times, the Gators have been forced to double-team in the post due compensate for size mismatches, which has left the 3-point line open. As a result, Florida’s ability to shoot from 3-point range (39 percent) has been negated by its inability to defend it (37.1 percent 3-point field goal defense).
“Our worst defensive number is the way we’re defending the three,” White said. “And a part of it is the way we’re defending the interior. So we’ve got to find that balance. We’re coming off a game in which we obviously didn’t find the right balance because we didn’t guard either very proficiently. So we’re going to have to do a better job.”
White will be looking for his bench to step up on both ends of the floor. Hudson has been a reliable scoring sixth man and is averaging a team-high 16.2 points per game in nine starts and seven games off the bench. Freshman guard Mike Okauru was a bright spot off the bench in the Ole Miss loss, scoring nine points, his most since scoring a season-high 15 points against Stanford on Nov. 23.
With Gak likely out, Florida may need more minutes from redshirt freshman forward Dontay Bassett, who will move up to the third post player in a rotation that includes starting forward Keith Stone and starting center Kevarrius Hayes.
“Dontay’s gonna have to give us something,” White said. “Kevarrius and Keith Stone are gonna have to play really physical and intelligent, and do their best to not be sitting by me in foul trouble. And then, of course, our backcourt has got to do a great job of helping with the interior defense and rebounding.”
Who: Florida Gators (12-5, 4-1 SEC) vs. Arkansas Razorbacks (12-5, 2-3 SEC)
Where: O’Connell Center, Gainesville
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G KeVaughn Allen 6-2 Jr., 10.3 ppg, 2.4 apg
G Chris Chiozza 6-0 Sr., 12.6 ppg, 5.8 apg
G Egor Koulechov 6-5 GSr., 15.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg
F Keith Stone 6-8; RSo., 8.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg
C Kevarrius Hayes 6-9 Jr., 5.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg
ARKANSAS PROBABLE STARTERS
G Anton Beard 6-0 Sr., 11.1 ppg, 2.7 apg
G Daryl Macon 6-3 Sr., 15.8 ppg, 4.1 apg
G Jaylen Barford 6-3 Sr., 18.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg
F Dustin Thomas 6-8 Sr., 4.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg
C Daniel Gafford 6-11 Fr., 11.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg
Notes: Florida is 22-11 all-time against Arkansas and 4-0 against the Razorbacks under Mike White. The Gators have won seven straight in the series and 12 straight against Arkansas at home, dating back to Feb. 28, 1995, when White was a senior at Jesuit High in New Orleans. “I’m bad with history,” White said. “I was probably struggling in history class at Jesuit at that time. I have no idea about that streak; it’ll have nothing to do with tomorrow night’s game. It’ll have to deal with this year’s team for the Gators, and this year’s team for the Hogs” … Florida redshirt sophomore forward Keith Stone is averaging 16 points over his last four games and is coming off scoring a career-high 23 points against Ole Miss. … Florida leads the SEC in turnover margin (plus-4.9) and is tied with Missouri for the league-lead in 3-pointers made per game (9.6). … With 161 career steals, senior point guard Chris Chiozza is two shy of passing Kenyan Weeks (163) for 10th on UF’s all-time steals list. … The free-throw line could play a factor in the outcome of the game. Florida ranks third in the SEC in free-throw shooting at 76.4 percent, while Arkansas ranks 13th at 66.5 percent. Florida has three of the top four free-throw shooters in the SEC, led by senior guard Egor Koulechov (first at 95.9 percent), junior guard KeVaughn Allen (third at 89.8 percent) and Chiozza (fourth at 88.7 percent). … Koulechov, coming off his third double-double of the season, is second on UF in scoring and leads the Gators in rebounding. Florida is 10-1 when Koulechov scores 12 or more points and 2-4 when the Rice grad transfer scores 11 points or fewer.
— Kevin Brockway