Gators return to action against Arkansas after 13-day break

By Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida guard Noah Locke rises for a jumper during last year's game against Arkansas at Exactech Arena. The Gators visit the Razorbacks on Tuesday night.

Following a 13-day hiatus from competition due to COVID-19 protocols, the Florida men’s basketball team will resume the season on the road at Arkansas, one of four SEC programs to have played more than 20 games. 

The Gators have experienced several starts and stops throughout the season, including postponing contests with LSU and Tennessee due to a combination of COVID-19 positive tests, contact tracing and quarantining of players and assistant coaches, while Saturday’s contest with Texas A&M was postponed, if not nixed, due to coronavirus issues with the Aggies. 

Tuesday

Who: Florida (10-5, 6-4 SEC) at No. 24 Arkansas (16-5, 8-4)

When: 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 103.7-FM, 98.1-FM, AM-850 

UF will most likely reschedule one of the postponed contests, meaning as of now the Gators will at most play 21 of the 27 contests on their schedule. 

Rather than a team tired of the circumstances that come with playing in the pandemic, UF coach Mike White said his team is eager to get back to the normalcy that comes with competing. 

“I think everybody’s fired up,” White said. “We’re sick of playing against each other here in these last few days.”

The Gators returned to practice with a skeleton crew of sorts. It’s unknown just who Florida will be without come game-time, although it expects junior forward Colin Castleton to be limited in the lead-up to the contest. 

“We had about a week I guess where we had seven guys in practice. It was a little abnormal, but I guess normal for these times. It’s happened to us a few times this year. Five scholarship guys and our two walk-ons and we tried to make the most of it. And then for a few days now we’ve been able to do some four-on-four and some five-on-five, although we’ve had some knick-knack injury stuff,” White said. “For the most part we’re close to full strength. Hoping that Colin Castleton can go today at least in parts of practice. We’ll see how that goes and evaluate from there.”

Facing one of the SEC’s tougher opponents this season, the Gators may need all they’ve got. 

The Razorbacks have yet to lose in February and are riding a three-game win streak after defeating No. 10-ranked Missouri on the road Saturday. Add in that Arkansas hasn’t lost an SEC game in a month and has postponed just two games this season, and Tuesday’s return to action for the Gators could easily be seen as a daunting task for a team looking to regain the momentum it had prior to the pause. 

“They’re the hottest team in our league, having won six straight league games, which these past three years with the strength of the SEC, it’s not normal just to reel off six straight. That’s pretty special in this league and at this time, in the current SEC era,” White said of the Razorbacks. “They play really, really hard. This team they’ve got a chip to them. Defensively they are connected. They value the ball offensively. They take care of it, they share it, they play really fast offensively. More than anything, their defensive connectivity right now, their defensive efficiency obviously, especially as of late, and just how hard they play. They’re very good on the offensive glass as well.”

Winning the rebounding battle has been a point of emphasis from White throughout the year, as the Gators currently rank 11th in the conference in defensive rebounds per game. 

Florida doesn’t have any players inside the top-20 in rebounding in the SEC; Castleton, their top rebounder, remains a question mark for the trip. 

Despite the apparent disadvantages on paper, the focus isn’t as much on the opponent as it is on continuing to improve, which Florida has still done in the time away from the court.

And with the final three weeks of the regular season approaching, the Gators remain eager and optimistic to do what they did in January: contend against the odds. 

“I think our guys were really excited about getting back to winning ways, at least getting back to playing a better last 10 minutes of the game to give yourself a better chance. But we just haven’t had that opportunity. So how have we practiced? We’ve had good ones and we’ve had average ones. We were pretty average yesterday. I’ve never been afraid to call it like I see it with our team. A couple of days ago I felt like we were really, really locked in,” White said. “(Monday) we need to be better than we were yesterday. Again, these things — you want to compete for a championship. You want to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, you gotta get to the tournament. You’ve gotta prepare for the Razorbacks, but at the same time you’ve got to continue to develop and get better at your weakness and continue to sharpen your strengths.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

12 Colin Castleton F  6-11  231 Jr. 13.2 ppg 5.6 rpg

22 Tyree Appleby G  6-1  170  Jr. 10.3 ppg 3.1 rpg

10 Noah Locke G  6-3  203  Jr. 11.5 ppg 2.6 rpg

01 Tre Mann G  6-5  190 So. 14.5 ppg 5.3 rpg

05 Omar Payne F  6-10 230  So. 4.5 ppg 4.1 rpg

Arkansas

00 Justin Smith F 6-7 230 Gr. 11.6 ppg 6.5 rpg

23 Connor Vanover F 7-3 247 RSo. 7.9 ppg  5.6 rpg

04 Davonte Davis G 6-3 180 Fr. 6.6 ppg 3.5 rpg

05 Moses Mood G   6-6 205 Fr. 16.3 ppg 5.7 rpg

11 Jalen Tate G 6-6 175 Gr. 11.0 ppg 3.7 rpg

Notes: The Gators have enjoyed success against the Razorbacks under Mike White, posting an 8-1 record . ... UF has won its last two road games, going back to the Jan. 23 win at Georgia and Jan. 30 SEC/Big 12 Challenge win at No. 11 West Virginia. ... Florida rates as the nation’s top shot-blocking team at 6.3 per game. The Gators are on pace for a program record in that category (5.3, 2005-06), having only once previously averaged more than five blocks per game. ... Noah Locke is three 3-pointers away from becoming the eighth Gator to make 200 in his career. Sitting at 197, Locke is one behind Kenyan Weaks for No. 9 on Florida’s all-time list.

— Graham Hall