It is still winless in conference play after a hard-fought loss to Georgia on Wednesday, but there was one silver lining for Arkansas basketball.
After an abysmal first half, the Razorbacks (9-6, 0-2 SEC) showed much better resiliency and effort in the second half — something they hope to replicate for a full 40 minutes when they take on Florida at 3 p.m. CT Saturday on ESPN.
“We definitely showed fight in the second half,” Arkansas guard Tramon Mark said. “I’m proud of our team for showing that fight. We didn’t have that last game at home, so definitely a step in the right direction, but we still have a lot of stuff to (fix). This still isn’t the outcome we wanted.”
Unfortunately, time is not on the Razorbacks’ side – both for their next game and any tournament hopes they have left. Arkansas will actually stay on the road after their loss Wednesday night as they head to Gainesville to take on the Gators (10-5, 0-2) in an SEC showdown.
Florida is also off to an 0-2 start to SEC play, but its losses have come against No. 6 Kentucky and Ole Miss – a team that is currently 14-1 on the season with their only loss coming against No. 5 Tennessee.
Previewing Florida Basketball
Florida is led by three transfers who are no stranger to scoring the basketball. Leading scorer Walter Clayton is a 6-foot-2 guard from Iona. After averaging nearly 17 points per game as a sophomore last season, Clayton has kept his scoring up at 16.2 points per game while evolving somewhat as a scorer.
Last season, he shot 47% inside the arc and 43% beyond it, but this season those numbers have changed to 55% and 34% – though he’s attempting one full 3-pointer more per game this year. He’s also averaging 3.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists to go along with 2.1 total steals and blocks per game. Clayton is the only Gator averaging more than 30 minutes per game this season and is the clear leader of this squad.
The Gators’ second-leading scorer is Zyon Pullin (6-4, Sr.) from UC-Riverside. After averaging over 18 points per game last season on efficient shooting, Pullin has taken his efficiency to another level in the SEC. He’s averaging 15.2 points on over 42% shooting from long range while also contributing a team-high 4.8 assists.
After missing a few games earlier in the season, Pullin has been on an absolute tear over his last five games. The senior guard is averaging 18.6 points, 4.4 assists and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 53% from the field and 67% (!!!) from 3-point range on nearly 2.5 attempts per game. This includes a season high 23-point outing against Kentucky only two games ago.
While Clayton might be the team’s leading scorer on the season, don’t be surprised if Musselman focuses the spearhead of his defense toward slowing down Pullin – perhaps a similar gameplan to the one used to limit Georgia’s best player, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, to only 5 points on 1-of-8 from the field.
Tyrese Samuel (6-10, Sr.) is the final transfer leading the charge in scoring with 13.3 points per game to go along with 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Riley Kugel (6-5, So.) and Will Richard (6-5, Jr.) are each also averaging double-digit scoring for the Gators with 10.9 and 10.7 points per game, respectively.
Each of these two returning players had respectable outings in their lone matchup against Arkansas last season. Kugel poured in 17 points on only 42% from the field, including going 6-of-7 from the free throw line, while Richard scored 10 points on an efficient 60% from the field.
It’s also worth noting that, other than Samuel at 6-foot-10, Florida has three other players in their regular rotation standing at least 6-foot-9 or taller: Thomas Haugh (6-9, Fr.), Alex Condon (6-11, Fr.), and Micah Handlogten (7-1, So.). This clearly contributes to their elite team rebounding numbers and will be an interesting key to watch as the Hogs try to match up.
What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball
Perhaps the biggest positive takeaway from the Razorbacks’ most recent loss to Georgia was their ability to stay in the game and continue fighting back despite suffering a severe shooting drought and trailing by double-digits multiple times throughout the contest.
While celebrating moral victories such as playing hard is far from Muss’ mojo, the effort shown in Athens was still a vast improvement from the second half performance against Auburn that saw the Hogs turn a 7-point halftime deficit into literally the worst home loss in Bud Walton Arena history.
In the second half against Georgia, Arkansas actually tied the Bulldogs at 42 points apiece while greatly improving their ball security and free throw efficiency, though they never found their touch on the road. In fact, as a team the Hogs are shooting 29% from long range over their last six games combined – and that includes a 47% outing against Abilene Christian.
Without that stellar performance, they’re shooting under 27% from behind the arc. This is very concerning for a team that essentially targeted offensive-minded players this offseason to combat their offensive struggles last season.
There was at least one other bright spot for the Hogs in this loss, and his name is Tramon Mark. We’ve seen the Houston transfer take over in a few different games so far this season, and his isolation game was on full display in the second half against Georgia. Mark scored 18 second-half points on 5-of-11 (45%) from the field and a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line.
“We moved him to the point,” Musselman said. “It was middle pick-and-roll. He was phenomenal. He goes 10 of 10 from the foul line. We only take 22 foul shots; he takes 10 of them. Thought he was super effective. I thought he did a good job attacking the basket. And he had three steals – an area we’ve been talking about trying to create turnovers.”
Jalen Graham continued his good offensive production of late with 9 points on 4-of-8 shooting, though he went only 1 of 6 (17%) from the charity stripe and grabbed only one rebound in his 12 minutes of action, likely the driving factors in him seeing reduced minutes in the second half.
Keyon Menifield Jr. and Khalif Battle combined to score 3 points on 1 of 13 (8%) shooting from the field, including 1 of 6 (17%) from 3-point range. The team as a whole struggled from long range, but these two guards in particular were thought to be leaders on the offensive side of the ball coming into this game. Having them go nearly scoreless in a relatively close game is not a winning recipe for the Hogs.
What to Watch: Arkansas vs Florida
Arkansas’ ability to secure offensive rebounds has been a telling factor in a majority of its games this season. When they out rebound their opponent, the Hogs are 8-1 on the season. The lone loss came by five points to a Memphis team currently ranked No. 13 in the AP Poll coming less than 24 hours after the Hogs played a double-overtime game the night before.
When they lose the battle on the boards, the Hogs are 1-5. The lone win was a single-digit victory over Old Dominion, a game in which the Hogs were favored to win by closer to 20 points. In other words, even their lone win while losing the rebound battle was relatively ugly.
The bad news? Florida is the No. 1 rebounding team in the country. They average 45.1 rebounds per game (No. 1 nationally) and 16.5 offensive rebounds per game (No. 2), including 40.0 rebounds and 16.5 rebounds against SEC competition.
A lot of the Gators’ rebounding success has come from their sheer size and ability to impose their will on the glass. As mentioned, they field four different players standing at least 6-foot-9 – including a 7-foot-1 starting center in Micah Handlogten – for at least 16 minutes per game.
Perhaps this was a reaction to losing control of their season after Collin Castleton went down with a season-ending injury last year. Ironically, Arkansas was the first team to get a shot at the Gators without their star center and Jalen Graham poured in a career-high 26 points on 80% shooting from the field against the Florida backups. That likely won’t be the case this year with so much length on the interior for the Gators.
“Florida is a team that can win the SEC,” Musselman said. “They’re big, they rebound, they have great guard play, they’re well-connected, they play extremely hard, they play very, very fast. You know, they’re one of the top tier teams in the SEC, there’s no question. They’re not just an NCAA Tournament team, they’re a team that can win games in the tournament for sure.”
How Musselman combats this size from a rotation standpoint will be very interesting to watch. Don’t be surprised to see at least two of Trevon Brazile, Makhi Mitchell, Chandler Lawson and Jalen Graham on the court more often than usual in this contest. Baye Fall might even be closer to playing time in this game should something like foul trouble limit one of the other four big men.
The other part of this challenge is how well Arkansas is able to rebound as a team, not just the forwards. It will be imperative for everyone in the game to put a body on someone and not allow Florida easy paths to rebounds on either side of the court, and that includes all of the guards in the game at any given moment.
Musselman noted after the Georgia loss that both Tramon Mark (team-high 7 rebounds) and Devo Davis (6 rebounds) did a tremendous job in keeping the Bulldogs contained on the offensive glass – one of the few stat categories Arkansas won in this contest by a tally of 10-9.
Florida has been a solid team all season and finds itself in a much better position than the Razorbacks currently, but the final outcome of this game could very simply be decided on the boards. Arkansas will need to find a way to stay competitive and potentially win the rebound battle against the nation’s best rebounding team.
Florida leads the all-time series between these two schools at 26-15 all-time, including an eye-popping 14-3 record in Gainesville. Arkansas has won each of the last three games against Florida, but it went 1-11 in the 12 games prior to that stretch.
The solid second-half effort against Georgia will carry over into this game as the Hogs continue to leave it all on the floor in Gainesville. At least one of the other guards will get back on track offensively alongside Tramon Mark who continues to provide scoring when the Hogs need it most – though don’t expect a stellar team shooting total in a tough road environment.
Even with potentially renewed energy after having a second-half performance worth building on against Georgia, Arkansas falls short in this contest.
Florida wins, 81-73
How to Watch Arkansas vs Florida
Date: Saturday, Jan. 13
Location: Exactech Arena (Gainesville, Fla.)
Tipoff Time/TV: 3 p.m. CT (ESPN)
ESPN BPI: Florida has an 83.7% chance to win, favored by 11.6 points.
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