Hogs hunting first win at Florida since 1995

Jaylin Williams was just named the SEC co-Player of the Week for the second time this season.

Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The last time Arkansas won a basketball game at Florida, none of the current Razorbacks were even a gleam in their father’s eye.

A crass cliché?

Yes, but it’s true.

Razorback Basketball

Opponent: at Florida
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 22
Where: O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.

Up next for the Hogs

Feb. 26 – Kentucky, 1 p.m. (CBS)
March 2 – LSU, 8 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
March 5 – at Tennessee (TBA)
March 9-13 SEC Tournament Tampa, Fla.

Razorback coach Eric Musselman was coaching the Florida Sharks and hunting a USBL title back then. Florida coach Mike White, who bedeviled the Hogs as a tough point guard at Ole Miss, was a senior in high school.

Hog fans were enjoying watching their Razorbacks’ quest to defend their 1994 national title.

Unfortunately, the Razorbacks have experienced nothing but futility at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla. since topping the Gators, 94-85, on Feb. 28, 1995.

It was the seventh win in a 10-game winning streak that went to the championship game of the SEC Tournament.

No. 3 Kentucky and Antoine Walker broke the Hog fans’ hearts in Atlanta with a 95-93 overtime victory over Corliss Williams, Scotty Thurman et al.

It was a classic game with Nolan Richardson’s Razorbacks and Rick Pitino’s Wildcats fighting tusk and claw in an incredibly competitive game that ranks among the best I’ve personally witnessed. It was two heavy weights trading knockout punches.

The Hogs got back to their winning ways, though, running through the NCAA Tournament until they ran into UCLA in the national title game at Seattle and fell, 89-78, to the Bruins.

While I and many other Razorback fans enjoy reliving old times in our mind’s eye, don’t talk that smack to Razorback star forward Jaylin Williams, who recorded his ninth double-double of the season with a career high 16 rebounds and 13 points against Tennessee.

When asked about the Hogs’ struggles in Gainesville over the years following the Razorbacks’ grinding 58-48 victory over then-No. 16 Tennessee, Williams, who earned Co-SEC Player of the Week honors on Monday, smiled and said, “Every game is just a basketball game to us. We aren’t going to think about that. We’re not the teams before that went there. We’re a new team. We’re going to go into that game confident and ready to play, and be energetic as a team.”

Devo Davis, who hit two key 3-pointers in the victory over Tennessee, echoed his fellow sophomore teammate.

“We’re going to just continue to play,” Davis said. “We look one-game ahead. Florida is next. We play away. That’s what we are going to focus on. Continue to be smart. Look at our [scouting report] and make sure everyone knows it. Try to go down there and get a road win.”

As hot as the Razorbacks are after winning 11 of their last 12 games, Florida is coming off their stunning 63-62 upset of then-No. 2 Auburn on Saturday, and White’s Gators would like nothing more than to hang a Razorback pelt right next to their Tiger pelt for back-to-back Associated Press Top 25 victories.

In the latest AP poll, the Razorbacks jumped up to No. 18, ironically a spot behind No. 17 Tennessee, whom they beat Saturday.

Alabama remained in the poll after their weekend loss to Kentucky at No. 24. The Wildcats, who come to Walton Arena Saturday for a 1 p.m. clash with the Hogs, are No. 6. Auburn fell a spot to No. 3 after their loss to the Gators.

While the AP poll is important for prestige and getting your highlights played on TV news, it’s not an official tool used in the NCAA selection process, although all members of that NCAA Selection Committee are no doubt aware of it.

The NCAA’s rankings of choice are its own Net Rankings, which the Selection Committee does officially use for deciding which teams are issued a bid and where they will be seeded.

The good news is that the Hogs took a big jump with the win over the Vols. The Hogs are at No. 23 based on games played through Sunday. Alabama is at No. 22, bolstered by nonconference wins over Gonzaga and Houston back in December.

LSU is ranked No. 16, again based more on their nonconference work before Christmas rather than their play in the SEC since. Tennessee is No. 11, while Auburn is at No. 10, a rather huge discrepancy from the AP poll. Kentucky leads the SEC pack at No. 3.

As for the SEC standings, the weekend’s results produced some contraction at the top but the divide between the top four teams and the rest of the league widened.

Auburn (24-3, 12-2) remains atop the SEC, but with just a one-game lead over Kentucky (22-5, 11-3) with four games to play. Arkansas (21-6, 10-4) and Tennessee (19-7, 10-4) are knotted at third in the league, with the Razorbacks holding the head-to-head advantage.

The Hogs and Vols hold a three-game lead over LSU (19-8, 7-7), Alabama (17-10, 7-7), Florida (16-10, 7-7), South Carolina (16-10, 7-7), and Mississippi State (16-11, 7-7) who are mired in the middle.

The top four teams in the SEC get a double-bye into the quarterfinal round of the SEC Tournament, held March 9-13 in Tampa, Fla.

“The ultimate goal for us is to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Musselman said following last Saturday’s Tennessee victory. “To try to get the best seed we possibly can, to try and play as well as we can throughout the SEC regular season. I understand the seeding for the SEC Tournament, but we just want to play one game at a time because we know what our schedule looks like these last four games.”

The Razorbacks, of course, play the Gators tonight, play host to Kentucky on Saturday and LSU on March 2 before closing out the regular season with a road trip to Knoxville on March 5 to face Tennessee, in what should be another “street fight,” as Richardson used to say.

Tonight’s and Wednesday’s games will create some separation in the SEC log jam, but the mission for the Razorbacks is just keep winning.

The Hogs have been doing that with defense. The Razorbacks have held 10 of their last 12 opponents under 40 percent shooting, which has gone a long way to mitigate their own shooting struggles of late.

It’s hard to win a game shooting 30.5 percent from the field like the Hogs did against Tennessee last Saturday, but the math works when you consider the Razorbacks allowed the Vols to shoot just 27.1 percent from the field.

As strong as the Razorbacks were defensively last season when they made their Elite Eight run, they might be even better this year?

However, every game is a challenge, and Florida will be a tough one for the Hogs tonight.

“Florida’s really good at home,” Musselman said. “They have a great student section. We’ve got to go try to win a 40-minute game in Gainesville.”

The matchup of the night will be the 6-10 Williams against 6-11, senior Gator Colin Castleton, who outplayed Auburn’s 7-1 Walker Kessler, a SEC MVP candidate, last Saturday. He averages 15.7 ppg. and 9.1 rebounds to lead Florida in both categories.

It’s also going to be interesting to see how SEC officials react to outspoken Tennessee coach Rick Barnes’ postgame questioning of the four charges that Williams took against the Vols.

Barnes was diplomatic with his criticism after the game, but generally such public criticism of officials garners a reprimand and a fine from the SEC. One has to wonder if there will be a backlash against the Hogs’ big man with officials questioning what they see?

Tyree Appleby makes the Gators go at the point averaging 10.7 points and 3.74 assist per game.

Razorbacks leading scorer JD Notae averages 18.5 ppg. and leads the SEC in steals with 2.17 a game, but he’s struggled with foul problems in recent games, limiting his minutes.

For the Hogs to pull off its first victory in Gainesville since 1995, Notae needs to be on the floor as much as possible.