FAYETTEVILLE - The Arkansas Razorbacks and Florida Gators ought to be more prepared to play each other Wednesday night than either could have been at their last meeting.
For both teams came off a few days Christmas break when they played their ridiculously early SEC season-opener in Fayetteville on Dec. 29, a date when most SEC teams customarily played holiday tournaments or a lower echelon nonconference opponent as a post Christmas tuneup.
Coach Mike White’s Gators, now 23-6 overall, won, 81-72 that Dec. 29 SEC opener at Walton Arena and play the 6 p.m. CST on ESPN2 rematch tonight at their O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla. ranked 12th in the country and second in the SEC at 13-3.
Coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks, rolling on a 5-game SEC winning streak, arrive 22-7 overall and an 11-5 tied for third in the SEC with just tonight’s game in Gainesville and Saturday’s Senior Day at Walton against Georgia left before next week’s SEC Tournament in Nashville, Tenn.
Led by North Little Rock’s KeVaughn Allen returning to his home state as a Gators guard scoring 21 points while Florida forward Devin Robinson scored 17 points with seven rebounds and point guard Kasey Hill penetrating and dealing six assists and scoring 10 points, and center Kevarrius Hayes scoring 10 points with six boards, the Gators played very well in Fayetteville.
Anderson expects the Gators playing even better tonight because of those same players and recently better performances of Florida starting forward Justin Leon of Conway and reserves Chris Chiozza, also pretty good in Fayetteville dealing four assists in 15 minutes, and Canyon Barry, the flawlessly free throw shooting son of NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry.
Florida lost to season-ending injury center John Egbunu, 11 rebounds in Fayetteville, but Anderson said White has managed to turn that absence into an asset capitalizing on the speed of the Gators’ depth.
"I think what it does is open up the floor a little bit more for the drivers," Anderson said. "Now you’ve got those attacking guards. You’ve got the Robinson kid. Chiozza is getting in there and Hayes is a high-flier."
Their Fayetteville experience certainly should make the Gators confident for the rematch.
"They came in and really took the fight to us at Bud Walton Arena which normally doesn’t happen," Anderson said. "They have a couple of kids (Allen and Leon) from Arkansas that are playing well. But Kasey Hill is a guy that kind of stirs that engine with that basketball team. Mike has them playing at a real high level. So it’s going to be a very not welcoming atmosphere but it’s something our guys look forward to."
For the Razorbacks know they field a better team now than when they played Florida in December. And while Arkansas hasn’t won at Gainesville since Nolan Richardson’s national runner-up team of 1995, these Razorbacks this season actually have won more on the SEC road, 6-2, than at home, 5-3.
"They are a different team now and so are we," Anderson said. "It’s two teams that continue to evolve."
Five Razorbacks, three junior college transfers, an activated redshirt transfer and a freshman played their first-ever SEC game on Dec. 29.
All have a sense of SEC urgency now they didn’t have then, Anderson said.
All play better now senior guard Dusty Hannahs and senior center Moses Kingsley said, against the points off baseline inbounds plays that the Gators gashed them with in Fayetteville.
JC transfer guard Daryl Macon, 22 points, excelled against Florida but fellow JC transfer guard Jaylen Barford, 1 for 8 and two points, did not.
Barford scored 23, 15, 16 and 20 in Arkansas’ last four games, victories at South Carolina, at Walton over Ole Miss and Texas A&M and at Auburn.
Though shooting only 5 of 15 from the field, Kingsley double-doubled on Florida with 13 points and 14 rebounds and blocked four shots.
He’s getting far more up front support now from 6-8 junior transfer forward Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook and freshman forward Adrio Bailey and especially from Trey Thompson, the 6-9 junior 2-year letterman from Madison via Forrest City High.
"The emergence of Trey Thompson and Jaylen Barford makes us a deeper team," Anderson said.