Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for WholeHogSports.com. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, Bordelon previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Springdale. He is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and Football Writers Association of America, and was awarded 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
What to watch for in Arkansas-Florida
Arkansas freshman Anthony Black looks to make a play during the Razorbacks' game against South Carolina at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ men’s basketball team will look to regain its footing in SEC play on Saturday when it faces Florida inside Bud Walton Arena.
The Razorbacks have lost back-to-back conference games since their five-game SEC win streak and need to protect home court to remain in the mix as an NCAA Tournament team. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. on ESPN2.
Here are a handful of things to keep an eye on in the game:
• Arkansas’ three-point defense
The Gators are hitting the final stretch of the regular season without their centerpiece.
Colin Castleton, an All-SEC caliber player, broke a hand earlier this week in Florida’s win over Ole Miss. Arkansas knows all too well how an injury can impact a season’s trajectory and team makeup.
So what might the Gators look like offensively without their top frontline option and leading scorer? It makes perfect sense that they would become a more perimeter-oriented team.
First-year coach Todd Golden, who arrived in Gainesville, Fla., after a 24-win season at San Francisco in 2021-22, has the pieces at his disposal to give teams all they can handle at the guard spots.
Belmont transfer Will Richard (6-4) has made a team-high 22 threes in league games on 39.3% shooting. Second in SEC games in made threes is Myreon Jones (6-3), who is in his second season at Florida after transferring from Penn State. He is shooting 37.3% from deep against SEC opponents.
And freshman Riley Kugel (6-5) could take on a larger offensive role, as well. He has hit 12 of 32 (37.5%) shots beyond the arc in conference play and is averaging 15 points in the last 3 outings.
Kowacie Reeves, a 6-6 wing, has attempted a team-high 61 threes in the league but struggled with efficiency — 19.7%. He is 6 of 34 (17.6%) from deep in 8 true road games.
The Razorbacks must have great awareness of Florida’s shooters in the half court and ID them quickly when the Gators choose to run. And they will likely have to – as best they can – fight through and work around some Jason Jitoboh ball screens and dribble handoffs.
Jitoboh stands at 6-11 and 300 pounds.
Florida went through a two-game stretch in which it hit 6 of 34 threes in losses to Alabama and Vanderbilt, but the Gators found a rhythm Wednesday against Ole Miss. They hit 10 of 17 long-range attempts with Jones’ 5-of-7 performance leading the way.
The Rebels are last in the SEC in three-point defense, and Arkansas is 13th. League opponents have hit 36.5% of their threes against the Razorbacks, and Mississippi State and Texas A&M combined to make 12 of 22.
Limiting the creativity of point guard Kyle Lofton will be essential, too. He has 19 assists against 2 turnovers in the last 3 games and is more than capable of generating clean looks for teammates beyond the arc.
• Twins’ impact
Based on matchups, changes to the starting lineup could be in order for Arkansas against Florida. The Razorbacks have started Makhi and Makhel Mitchell in each of the last five games.
Arkansas’ interior defense has been terrific in that span when they have shared the floor. Opponents have made 39.5% of their two-point attempts, but the Razorbacks’ perimeter defense has slipped — 40.9% from deep, according to HoopLens data.
Arkansas may stick with the Mitchells to discourage inside shots and bolster rebounding. Or Eric Musselman could floor one to begin the game and allow them to take turns battling Jitoboh.
Regardless, they have built great trust as lane and rim protectors of late. Texas A&M was 1 of 12 from the field on Wednesday with Makhi Mitchell as the nearest Arkansas defender, and the Aggies were 1 of 9 against Makhel Mitchell.
Makhel Mitchell has been on a shot-blocking rampage, tallying 23 blocks in the last 6 games, including 20 since the Jan. 31 win over Texas A&M. And Makhi Mitchell is No. 7 in the SEC in block rate, according to KenPom.
Another note: the Mitchells have very much played within their roles offensively. They have a combined four turnovers in the last five games.
Jitoboh will be the biggest body they have faced this season, but he has not played many minutes this season due to Castleton’s consistent production. The Mitchells have brought great toughness to the lineup and have another opportunity this weekend to send a message.
• Pressure on the rim
The injury to Castleton certainly impacts Florida on the offensive end. He was averaging 16.4 points per game in conference play.
It also takes one of the nation’s top shot blockers off the floor for the Gators. According to KenPom data, the forward is 22nd nationally with a block rate of 9.2% and fourth in SEC play at 9.4%.
Musselman-coached Arkansas teams have attacked the rim with great regularity. That likely would have been the plan if facing a healthy Castleton, but without him the Razorbacks have a chance to feast in the lane.
Arkansas has made at least 50% of its two-point attempts in the last six games. Florida, thanks in large part to Castleton, owns the nation’s No. 7 two-point defense.
HoopLens data shows the Gators have allowed opponents to make 46.5% of interior shots this season when the forward is off the floor — up from 42.9% when he plays.
Without a big-time rim protector on the floor for Florida, Arkansas should try to take advantage and apply great pressure on the rim. A high number of three-point attempts would likely not be ideal.
The Razorbacks have made more than 5 threes once in the last seven games.
• Black continuing to create
Despite losing at Texas A&M, Arkansas had one of its best showings of the season in regards to sharing the basketball.
The Razorbacks assisted on 17 of 22 field goals in the game. And freshman guard Anthony Black was the catalyst, matching a season high with eight assists, which generated 21 points for the Razorbacks.
They were 5 of 6 on two-point attempts he set up and 3 of 6 beyond the arc.
Black has averaged 5.8 assists in the last 5 games. He accounted for an average of 29.4 points per game in that span between his own scoring and assists.
Black assisted on 11 of the Razorbacks’ 23 made threes in the last 5 games, and 18 of their two-point buckets.
His ability to create offense for Arkansas figures to be key against a Florida defense that is No. 16 nationally in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
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