Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson applauds his team in the second half of the game against Mississippi State last Wednesday in Fayetteville. (Special to The Commercial/Sarah Bentham)
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson doesn’t need a reminder of how dominant Florida has been in Southeastern Conference play this season.
He and the Razorbacks got a glimpse of just how good the Gators could be last season, when Florida handed Arkansas its first home loss. It wasn’t just any loss, either. The 98-68 blowout was Arkansas’ worst ever in Bud Walton Arena.
“Last year’s game wasn’t a fun game,” Anderson said. “And they’ve got pretty much some of the same players. Hopefully we can perform a little better.”
Arkansas (13-8, 4-4 in Southeastern Conference) is determined to do a much better job of protecting its home court when No. 2 Florida (18-2, 8-0 in SEC) rolls back into Fayetteville tonight at 6. But the challenge might be even greater this time.
The Gators carry a 10-game win streak into Bud Walton Arena and have been impressive in winning their first eight conference games by an average of 26.5 points. It included last Saturday’s 78-64 win against coaches’ 16th-ranked Ole Miss, giving them a two-game lead over the rest of the conference.
So Anderson knows Arkansas, which has faced Michigan and Syracuse already this season, is preparing for what he described as the “ultimate challenge.” But Anderson and his players also described it as an opportunity to showcase Arkansas basketball.
“It doesn’t happen very often,” forward Coty Clarke said of playing the nation’s second-ranked team. “It’s exciting because the fans want to come out and see you compete against the best. And so we get a chance to get them at our house first.”
Arkansas must find a way to crack Florida’s dominant defense to make the most of the opportunity tonight.
The statistics are staggering. The Gators are allowing just 51 points a game this season, which ranks second in the NCAA. But they’ve been even harder on SEC opponents the past month, allowing just 48.6 points through eight games.
Ole Miss enjoyed the best success against the Gators in weeks by putting up 64 in a 14-point loss last Saturday. The other seven SEC teams has scored 52 or less.
“I think because our guys have defended well, you get more and more excited about playing defense,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said Monday. “And listen, I’ve said this before. Most teams always enjoy playing offense more than you enjoy playing defense. But our guys I think have understood the value of playing good defense.”
Anderson said that quality makes them a national title contender as well.
“When you talk about Florida, you’re talking about a team that’s pegged to be in the Final Four and win a national championship and I don’t see why not,” Anderson said. “They have all the weapons. They’re playing tremendous defensively. I think that’s what gets lost … They shoot the basketball but Billy has them playing a high level of defense and that’s what, to me, wins championships.”
Florida has been equally impressive on the other end, entering tonight’s game as the SEC’s top three-point shooting team. The Gators are averaging 8.7 made three-pointers a game this season. They’re knocking down 39.1 percent as a team.
The long-range shots were a killer for Arkansas in last year’s game. Florida went 13-for-23 behind the three-point line en route to a night the Razorbacks hope to forget.
“Last year we hit them on a bad night,” Arkansas guard Kikko Haydar said. “It seems like they hit everything last year. But we don’t forget. And we’ll be ready to play.”
Anderson, whose team will wrap up a stretch of three games in six days tonight, said the only way to win is to pay attention to every detail on both ends.
Guard Kenny Boynton leads Florida in scoring (13.4 points), but four teammates are averaging 9.3 points or more a game. So leaving shooters — any shooters — open could result in damaging three-pointers. It especially includes 6-foot-10 forward Erik Murphy, who is shooting 51.2 percent (43 of 84) from three-point range.
“We’ve just got to continue to make them work at what they’re doing,” Anderson said. “We don’t want them to be comfortable in what they do, and one of the things they really can do is shoot the basketball.”
Offensively, Arkansas must get out in transition and push the pace against the Gators. While Florida likes to play up-tempo as well, the Razorbacks have struggled in the halfcourt largely because of its shooting struggles. Arkansas enters tonight’s game ranked 12th in the conference in three-point field goal percentage (29.8 percent).
Anderson said his team is due for a strong shooting night.
It certainly would help against Florida, which is cruising through conference play and will try to grab its second straight win in Bud Walton Arena tonight.
“As you get deep into conference play into February, you want to be playing some good basketball,” Anderson said. “So as you’re playing better basketball you’re going to be playing against some better teams. And we’re playing against one of the best in the nation. No question about it.
“We want to come out and we want to continue to defend our home court. … We’ve got an ultimate challenge, but it’s a great opportunity for our guys.”
No. 2 Florida (18-2) at Arkansas (13-8)
• When: 6 p.m. today
• Where: Bud Walton Arena
• TV/Radio: ESPN/KABZ-FM 103.7
• SEC records: Florida 8-0; Arkansas 4-4
• Series: Florida leads 15-10; last meeting Florida 98, Arkansas 68 on Feb. 18, 2012