ST. LOUIS — Florida hasn’t reached the semifinals of the SEC Tournament since 2014, the year the Gators last won the event and made a run to the Final Four.
The chance to bring home a trophy will serve as some motivation for the Gators this weekend. But the opportunity to improve as a team heading into the NCAA Tournament will be important as well.
The third-seeded Gators (20-11) will face sixth-seed Arkansas on Friday night in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. Arkansas advanced with a 69-64 win over 11th seed South Carolina on Thursday night.
The Gators have won eight straight against Arkansas, dating back to Feb. 5, 2013, when the Razorbacks last beat Florida 80-69 at Bud Walton Arena. In the lone meeting between the two teams this season, Florida beat Arkansas 88-73 in Gainesville on Jan. 17 behind a season-high 28 points from junior guard KeVaughn Allen.
Florida had a double-bye in the tournament last year, but lost 72-62 in overtime to Vanderbilt in the tournament quarterfinals.
“We want to try to win the whole thing, but we are just going to take it one game at a time,” Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza said. “I didn’t know that Friday was as far as I’d made it. So, of course if we win Friday, it’s going to be something I’ve never done before – to get to Saturday – but we’re not going to just get too excited over that if we win. We’re just going to out there and play hard every game and just leave it all on the court.”
Florida has made its biggest strides this season defensively, ranking second in the SEC and 18th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com’s rankings.
“It took a little time, but we’ve learned how to play together,” Florida coach Mike White said. “When we’re defending like this and scrapping on the glass — we’re not a great rebounding team, of course — and you’ve got those four guys and Keith Stone complementing them and Kevarrius Hayes finishing at the rim, you’re a pretty good team. I wish it didn’t take this long, but I’m really pleased with how we’re playing right now.”
On offense, junior guard Jalen Hudson has stepped up of late, averaging 22.7 points over his last three games. White said defense is keeping Hudson on the floor as much as offense.
“We knew he was a work in progress defensively,” White said. “He knows that. He’s gotten a lot better … just playing with physicality and playing with a motor, doing some dirty work.”
Florida is currently projected as a 5 to 6 seed in most NCAA Tournament mock web sites. On Thursday, ESPN braceketologist Joe Lundardi said the Gators could possibly work their way up to the 4 seed line if they win the SEC Tournament.
For now, though, Florida is just concerned with keeping the momentum it has built during its three-game win streak, and staying healthy.
“This point in the season, everybody’s got injuries that you’re playing through,” Chiozza said. “And I think that’s a big factor with this break we got. Hopefully it’ll allow us to heal any bumps and bruises that we had, and just be as close to 100 percent as we can become tournament time.”
Who: No. 23 Florida Gators (20-11) vs. Arkansas Razorbacks (22-10)
When: 9:30 p.m.
Where: Scottrade Center, St. Louis, Mo.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G KeVaughn Allen;6-2;Jr.;11.3 ppg; 2.4 rpg
G Chris Chiozza;6-0; Sr.;11.0 ppg;6.3 apg
G Jalen Hudson;6-6; RJr.;15.6 ppg;3.9 rpg
G Egor Koulechov;6-5; GSr.;13.8 ppg;6.5 rpg
C Kevarrius Hayes;6-9; Jr.;4.9 ppg;5.1 rpg
ARKANSAS PROBABLE STARTERS
G Anton Beard;6-0;Sr.;9.6 ppg; 3.0 rpg
G Daryl Macon;6-3; Sr.;17.1 ppg;4.0 apg
G Jaylen Barford;6-3; Sr.;17.9 ppg;3.9 rpg
F Adrio Bailey;6-6; So.;4.0 ppg;2.6 rpg
C Daniel Gafford;6-11; Fr.;12.1 ppg;6.2 rpg
Notes: Florida has won four SEC Tournaments in school history, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2014. … The Gators are 1-2 in SEC Tournament games under coach Mike White. … Former Florida and recently retired NBA forward David Lee (2001-05) will be honored before the game as UF’s SEC living legend. However, Lee, a St. Louis native, will be unable to attend the event due to a scheduling conflict.