By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks and Florida Gators both enter SEC Tournament play this week fighting for their postseason lives, with the winner remaining in the hunt for the Big Dance and the loser possibly making plans for the NIT.
Arkansas (17-14, 8-10 SEC, NCAA NET rating of No. 64) comes in as the SECT 9-seed having won three straight games but needing a few more wins to keep its slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive, and a loss against the Gators might even make an NIT (National Invitational Tournament) bid a shaky prospect. Florida (17-14, 9-9 SEC, NCAA NET rating of No. 33) is the 8-seed and in better NCAAT at-large-bid shape than the Hogs, and even though the Gators are in danger of losing their fourth straight game they may have done enough already to sneak into the Dance.
The two teams tip off at noon CT on Thursday on SEC Network in the first of four SECT second-round games at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN. The winner will play No. 1 seed LSU at noon CT on Friday in the SECT quarterfinals. Arkansas would need to win four games in four days to capture the SECT championship and earn the conference’s automatic NCAAT bid.
“The (SEC) tournament is the NCAA qualifier and that’s the goal of our basketball team,” said Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson, who guided the Hogs to a 6-7 SECT record in his first seven seasons leading the program. “We start off against a Florida team that’s playing well. We played them early in the year and they came in and beat us in our home opener. But a lot of games have been played and we feel we are a much better team at this point in time and I’m sure they are feeling the same way. Exciting times, tournament time, always when you get into March the games mean a whole lot more and of course everyone is 0-0. So it’s just like a new season and a new opportunity so we are looking forward to coming to Nashville.”
Arkansas, a 57-51 loser against Florida at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Jan. 9, has dropped 9 of its last 10 games against the Gators with the lone win coming just over a year ago — an 80-72 victory on March 9, 2018, that advanced the Hogs to the 2018 SECT semifinals. Both teams received at-large bids to the NCAAT last season, but both are on wobbly postseason ground in 2019.
“We are both fighting to get in,” Anderson said of the survive-and-advance nature of postseason. “We’re both fighting to have an opportunity to get in that (NCAA) tournament. That to me is what is taking place. We’re fighting and they’re fighting. So it sets up for I think a great game.”
Florida head coach Mike White talked about the matchup.
“We’ve got a great opportunity against Arkansas, one of the hottest teams in our league having won three in a row,” White said. “Daniel Gafford’s playing as well as anybody in the SEC. It’s kind of an odd rematch in that we played these guys 17 games ago. It seems like it was a season ago. It’s a clean slate for everybody in tournament play. We’re ready to get back to work.”
Arkansas comes into the SECT with a hot hand from behind the 3-point arc, having made a combined 39-of-76 for 51.3% in its last 4 games. Florida boasts the top 3-point shooting defense in the SEC, and the Gators are ranked 13th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com college basketball ratings.
When the two teams met at BWA in early January, Florida’s defense held Arkansas to 15-of-50 field goals (30%), including only 6-of-26 from 3 (23.1%), while forcing 16 turnovers for a plus-4 advantage in giveaways. The Gators also won bench scoring, 10-0. The lone bright spot for the Hogs was sophomore wing Mason Jones, who scored a game-high 30 points before missing on a driving shot attempt in the final minute that could have tied the game.
Fast-forward a couple of months and 17 games later, and the Hogs have a reshuffled lineup as Anderson inserted freshman guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro and sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien into the starting group five games ago while bringing Jones and junior forward Adrio Bailey off the bench. Sills has been effective in a starting role — a gritty defender averaging 9.8 points as a starter while shooting 11-of-17 from 3 (64.7%). Jones has provided scoring punch with the second unit while typcially logging starter-like minutes including a crunch time presence in tight games.
“I think guys understand their roles a little bit more now,” Anderson said of his team’s maturation compared to when it played Florida in the SEC home-opener in January. “And we are a much better team defensively. But when you give a team 57 points you’d think we’d win the game but we only scored 51 so hopefully we’ll be making shots and be a lot more efficient offensively.”
Sills has embraced his new role as a starter who brings defensive intensity as well as another perimeter scoring threat.
“I like my teammates having confidence in me,” Sills said. “I’ve just got to go out there and do my job and have confidence in myself. That’s the main thing. Defense leads to offense, so I’m maintaining that and doing what I can on the offensive end to help them score the ball when it’s needed.”
Gafford — who registered two double-doubles against Florida as a freshman, including 16 points and 12 rebounds in Arkansas’s SECT win last March — did not fare well when the teams met in January as the 6-11 sophomore center from El Dorado managed only 4 shot attempts and 9 points in 27 foul-plagued minutes. But Gafford has been a force of late, earning SEC Co-Player of the Week honors on Monday after having a combined 49 points and 20 rebounds last week in wins over Vanderbilt and Alabama. His monster 29-point, career-high-16-rebound game in the season-finale against the Tide on Saturday had the home crowd at BWA chanting, “One more year! One more year!”
Gafford was named Tuesday as consensus All SEC First Team and SEC All Defensive Team by the league’s coaches. Gafford leads the Hogs in scoring (17.0 points per game, fourth SEC), rebounds (8.7, first SEC), blocks (2.1, third SEC), and field goal percentage (66.0%, first SEC).
“I think he’s very deserving of it,” Anderson said of Gafford’s recent accolades. “When you look at the big picture and the things that Dan has done. The other night was one of those nights when he took it to another level scoring wise, defensive wise, rebounding the basketball. He’s had some periods … where he hasn’t played his best basketball. But it wasn’t because of lack of effort. We didn’t do a good job maybe of getting to him or maybe times he didn’t finish well. It’s been a learning year for him but it’s been a development year. You think of last year and the role he was in. It was totally different than this year. And I thought he stepped up to the plate.
“I think he’s matured a lot in terms of being THAT guy. Because he’s been on the top of everybody’s scouting report. Two and three players are coming at him. The physicality. I thought for a period he hit the wall but now it seems he’s ready to play some really good basketball for us. But he put the time in. Just think two years ago he was in high school and now he’s being considered one of the better payers not only in the SEC but in the country. And I think his best basketball continues to be in front of him.”
Freshman guard Isaiah Joe was named to the SEC All Freshman team on Tuesday. The SEC’s leader in made 3-point field goals (106) and 3-point field goal percentage (42.9%), Joe is the first Hog freshman to start every game since Bobby Portis (2013-14)and he holds the single-season record at Arkansas for made 3-pointers. He needs just 7 more triples to tie former Kentucky guard Jamal Murray for the SEC freshman record for made 3s in a season (113).
But the 3-point line does not define Joe’s value. He has been a vital cog in Arkansas’s efforts at both ends of the floor as he continues to build on his middle-game (inside the 3-point arc) offensively as a scorer, handler, and facilitator while also leading the team in steals (49, ninth SEC), deflections, and drawn charges. The Fort Smith native — he’s Arkansas’s second-leading scorer (14.0 points, 13th SEC, only 5 points off being the leading freshman scorer in the SEC) — showed off his all-around game against ‘Bama on Saturday, scoring 15 points (included two 3s, a dunk, a putback, a mid-range jumper, and 3-of-3 free throws) to go with a career-high-tying 6 rebounds, a career-high 6 steals, and 2 assists.
“I just think his game speaks for itself,” Anderson said of Joe. “He’s leading us in steals, probably in deflections, probably in charges. And he’s starting to put the ball on the floor, because people have been guarding him really, really well … they’re been very physical throughout the year. I think now he’s starting to figure out angles coming off screens, going off the dribble and making people foul him so he can get to the free throw line. I think that’s important for his development. You can be known as a shooter, and thet’s all you do is shoot. But I don’t think that’s what he’s doing. At times early on, I mean, let’s say he shoots it from 26 feet out, or stop and shoot from 30 feet out. And he can make some of those, but I think the percentages go up when you get a little bit closer. So now he’s starting to figure that out as well.”
Florida’s current 3-game losing skid follows a 5-game winning streak that was preceded by a 3-game losing stretch — a roller-coaster playbook all too familiar to Arkansas. And just like the Hogs, the Gators’ two best SEC wins were against league champ LSU on the road and against Ole Miss at home. Arkansas and Florida were the only two teams to defeat LSU in league play, which should make for an intriguing quarterfinals matchup for the double-bye rested Tigers whether its the Hogs or Gators that advance.
KeVaughn Allen, a 6-2 senior guard from North Little Rock, leads Florida in scoring at 11.9 points per game to go with 2.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.4 steals while shooting 38.4% field goals (including 32.9% from 3) and 88.2% free throws. Allen has seen his scoring production and shooting percentages steadily go down since his All SEC sophomore season when he had the luxury of playing with since-departed facilitating guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. Still, Allen has been at his best playing against Arkansas, averaging 15.9 points with a 6-1 record against the Hogs.
Noah Locke, a 6-3 freshman guard, averages 10.2 points and 2.5 rebounds while shooting 39.0% from 3 for the Gators. Andrew Nembhard, a 6-5 freshman point guard from Canada, leads Florida in minutes at 32.2 per game and is averaging 7.9 points, 5.2 assists (sixth in the SEC), 2.7 rebounds, and 1.2 steals. Kevarrius Hayes, a 6-9 senior forward / center, averages 7.8 points (66.2% field goals), 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. Jalen Hudson, a 6-6 senior wing, is averaging only 8.7 points (26.0% from 3) and 20.8 minutes after his junior-transfer campaign in which he averaged 15.5 points (40.4% from 3) and 26.6 minutes. Keith Stone, a versatile 6-8 junior combo forward who played well against Arkansas in last season’s SEC tournament, is averaging 6.1 points (40.5% from 3) and 3.9 rebounds. As a team, Florida averages 68.3 points on 42.3% field goals (including 33.4% from 3) and 72.1% free throws, and the Gators average 12.3 assists, 7.3 steals, 3.8 blocks, and 11.6 turnovers per game.
“They’ve got a lot of new pieces to their basketball team as well,” Anderson said of the Gators. “And they’ve had some guys that have been in and out. But they’ve got some veteran players when you talk about KeVaughn and Jalen Hudson who is playing really, really well. The Hayes kid, and the freshman, the Locke kid can really shoot the basketball. And Nembhard is one of the better guards in our league. You’ve got some other guys on that bench that are playing well and know their roles.
“And with our team when we played them we didn’t make free throws. We turned it over and it was like a new basketball team. Hopefully guys will have identified their roles and play a lot more efficient with each other. That should be the biggest difference is that they have games under their belt in conference play. Conference play is totally a little difference than non-conference play. The sense of urgency turns up many, many notches and of course now you are going into tournament play where it’s survive and advance. So it should be two teams that hopefully go out and put on a pretty good show.”
Hog food for Hog thought …
— After starting the season 6-1 and climbing to No. 32 on the NCAA’s NET rating — which replaced RPI this season to help the NCAA tournament selection committee determine at-large bids and seeding — Arkansas had a bumpy 11-13 roller-coaster ride to the end of the regular season while falling 32 spots to No. 64 in the NET heading into the SECT. And after opening SEC play with a road win against Texas A&M in early January, the Hogs had SEC winning streaks of 4 and 3 games wrapped around league losing streaks of 4 and 6 games. Arkansas’s best non-conference win was against Indiana (17-14, NET No. 51) at home in November, and their best SEC win was against regular-season legue champion and No. 9 LSU (26-5, NET No. 14) on the road in February. The Hogs also have solid home wins against Ole Miss (20-11, NET No. 35) and Alabama (17-14, NET No. 58) in their last three games. Arkansas likely needs at least two more wins in the SECT (over Florida on Thursday, then against LSU on Friday) with other NCAAT “bubble” teams faltering in the meantime to possibly emerge on the right side of the bubble. Win three games in the SECT before losing in the tourney finals and the Hogs would be sitting at 20-15 overall (11-11 in SEC games) and would likely have done enough to earn an NCAAT at-large bid.
— Sophomore center Daniel Gafford (he’s expected to leave after the season to enter the 2019 NBA Draft, where he is projected as a first-round selection) is approaching some statitistical milestones with only one more game guaranteed this season (against Florida on Thursday in the SECT). Gafford, who has played in 66 games as a Hog, needs 60 more points to become the 44th player in Arkansas history to reach 1,000 career points. Gafford also needs 12 more rebounds to reach 500 in his career, 10 more blocks to reach 150 in his career, 1 more steal to reach 50 in his career, and 3 more assists to reach 50 in his career. At his current 17.0 points-per-game scoring clip, Gafford theoretically needs to play in 4 more games to reach 1,000 career points and would also likely cross the other milestones in rebounds, blocks, steals, and assists. As a relative comparison former Hog forward Bobby Portis, who played in 70 games before leaving after his sophomore season for the NBA Draft, finished his UA career with 1,047 points, 551 rebounds, 104 blocks, 92 assists, and 74 steals.
— Sophomore point guard Jalen Harris is fourth in the SEC in assists (5.5 per game) and he leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.1-to-1), but his struggles shooting the ball have been glaring as perimeter defenders have backed off and dared him to shoot while they help down low to clog up passing lanes and scoring opporunities for Gafford. Harris was 8-of-64 from 3 (12.5%) for an average of 2.3 attempts from distance in Arkansas’s first 28 games. But in the last 3 outings — all wins — Harris has attempted a grand total of one shot from 3 as he has concentrated as a facilitator first and foremost while being selective in scoring opportunities as a slasher. His drive and high-kiss off the window with 5.9 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winner against Ole Miss on March 2, igniting the Hogs’ current winning spree.
— Arkansas is the only SEC team with three players — Daniel Gafford, Isaiah Joe, and Mason Jones — in the Top 15 in the league in total points scored. Gafford is fourth (527 points), Joe is 13th (435 points), and Jones is 15th (429 points).
— Arkansas finished 10-10 in games that were one- or two-possession margins in the final two minutes. The Hogs were 3-2 in games decided by one point, 1-1 in games decided by two points, 2-1 in games decided by three points, 0-2 in games decided by four points, and 0-2 in games decided by six points.
— The Razorbacks are 5-8 in games played outside of Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville: 4-7 in true road games (includes 3-6 in SEC road games) and 1-1 in neutral-site games.
— Gabe Osabuohien, the Hogs’ 6-8 sophomore forward from Southwest Christian Academy in Little Rock by way of Toronto, has given the Hogs a big lift as a starter in the last 5 games at both ends of the floor. On the season, Osabuohien is ninth on the team in minutes (14.4 per game), but he is third in per-40-minute rebounding (8.2 boards per-40-minuntes), first among the frontline players in assists (his 45 dimes are more than twice as many as any two other Hog bigs combined), he’s second on the team in drawn charges, and he’s the best on-ball defender on the team regardless of position.
— Though it is a much smaller sample size, freshman combo guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro has kept pace with SEC 3-point field-goal-percentage leader Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith in terms of efficiency from beyond the arc. Joe has made 106-of-247 from distance for 42.9%, while Sills has knocked down 22-of-52 for 42.3%.
— Arkansas has a 26-26 all-time record in the SEC Tournament.
— What’s in a stat? The Razorbacks finished the regular season as the worst free throw shooting team in the SEC (66.3%) … Arkansas had been in the bottom half of league play in 3-point shooting before going on a tear in its last 4 games (shooting 39-of-76), which brought the Hogs up to 6th in the 14-team league at 34.4% on the season … Arkansas is near the bottom of the SEC in rebounding at 33.8 boards per game for 13th in the league, but the Hogs’ second-round opponent Thursday in the SECT — Florida — is the worst rebounding team in the league at 33.4.