Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
ARKANSAS VS. NO. 2 FLORIDA:
Gators (8-0) chewing up SEC foes
Florida coach Billy Donovan, right, shouts to his team as the clock runs down during the second half against Missouri, as his bench celebrates during an NCAA college basketball game in Gainesville, Fla., Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. Florida won 83-52. It was Donovan's 400th career coaching win at Florida. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
FAYETTEVILLE Florida isn’t just winning SEC games. The Gators are making it look ridiculously easy.
After beating seven SEC teams by an average of 26.5 points - including Georgia twice by a combined 50 points - Florida (18-2, 8-0) has risen to No. 2 in the national polls behind Indiana.
“People are going to be excited about that opportunity,” Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said of taking on the Gators. “Until they have to deal with the realities of trying to beat them.”
It’s a reality Arkansas (13-8, 4-4) will face tonight when the Gators invade Walton Arena. Tipoff is 6 p.m. and the game will be nationally televised by ESPN.
Arkansas will attempt to defeat a team ranked as high as No. 2 for the first time in 14 years, since the Razorbacks beat No. 2 Auburn 104-88 on Feb. 24, 1999, in Walton Arena.
“It’s an opportunity for us to improve and showcase our basketball team to the nation and showcase Bud Walton Arena,” Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said. “To me, that’s what it’s all about.”
Florida leads the SEC in conference games in field goal shooting (51.4 percent) and field-goal defense (34.8 percent) as well as rebounding margin (plus-8.1) and assists per game (17.8).
“A lot of teams will beat you with their defense or they’ll beat you with their offense,” Georgia Coach Mark Fox said. “Florida can beat you with either one, and often is beating teams with both. I think they’re the best team in the country.”
The Gators have won three SEC road games by an average of 20.0 points, including 74-52 at LSU.
Arkansas (13-8, 4-4 SEC) vs. No. 2 Florida (18-2, 8-0)
WHERE: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
WHEN: 6:05 p.m.
“They’re exceptionally talented across the board, guys understand their roles and stick to them,” LSU Coach Johnny Jones said. “Defensively, they don’t make many mistakes, and they have guys that are very capable of covering up when they do.
“On the offensive end, they’re just a real machine. They make the game look easy.”
Ole Miss was ranked No. 16 when the Gators beat the Rebels 78-64 on Saturday in the O’Connell Center. Florida led by as many as 23 points.
“They were in control of the game, and yet they never let up one possession defensively from an intensity standpoint,” Kennedy said. “That just tells you where those kids are mentally, and they’re really locked in.”
The Gators start senior guards Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario, senior forward Erik Murphy, junior forward Patric Young and junior guard Scottie Wilbekin. Their top reserve is junior forward Will Yeguete.
“The amount of experience that they have on their roster is better than any other team in our league, and I think that’s the biggest difference between them and everyone else right now,” said South Carolina Coach Frank Martin, whose Gamecocks lost 75-36 at Florida last week. “They’re just a team that’s unbelievably disciplined that plays with tremendous attention to detail.
“They don’t turn it over and they don’t take bad shots, which allows their defense to set 95 percent of the time.”
Arkansas is second nationally in turnover margin (plus-6.8) and thrives on converting opponents’ miscues into fast-break points, but that figures to be tough to pull off against the Gators.
Mississippi State Coach Rick Ray’s team was outscored 42-8 in points off turnovers in a 96-70 loss at Arkansas, then in the next game the Bulldogs lost at home to Florida 82-47.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how Arkansas is able to press Florida,” Ray said. “I think that’s going to be a huge factor, because Florida has so many guys that can dribble, pass and shoot on the perimeter, that pressing may lead to some easy offense.”
Anderson said the ability to take the Gators out of their comfort zone offensively will be a key tonight.
“They’ve got guys that can handle the basketball. Can we disrupt them?” Anderson said. “That remains to be seen.
“We’ve been pretty good when we’re all doing the right things, but against a team that handles the ball this well, we’ve just got to continue to make them work at what they’re doing.”
No Gators are among the SEC’s top 12 individual scorers, but Florida is averaging 74.0 points led by Boynton (13.4), Murphy (12.1) and Rosario (12.1).
“When you have a lot of good players like Florida, sometimes it can get into a situation where guys don’t share the basketball, but I think that’s their No. 1 attribute,” Ray said.
Florida has won five in a row against Arkansas since losing 80-61 in Walton Arena in 2008 - when Gators assistant John Pelphrey coached the Razorbacks.
“I think Bud Walton is a great place to play,” said Billy Donovan, in his 16th season as Florida’s coach. “They’ve got great fans, great environment.”
Sports, Pages 19 on 02/05/2013