FAYETTEVILLE — Three of the SEC’s five basketball openers last Saturday were won by the road team — and Kentucky wasn’t one of them.
While Alabama was holding on to beat the Wildcats 77-75 and Tennessee pounded Georgia 96-50 for home victories, the University of Arkansas won 73-71 at Texas A&M, South Carolina won 71-69 at Florida and Ole Miss won 81-71 at Vanderbilt.
The Razorbacks, Gamecocks and Rebels were picked to finish 10th, 11th and 14th in the SEC in a preseason media poll, so what does their winning as road underdogs say about the conference?
“Every night it’s going to be a war,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Every game is tough.
“Teams are good whether they play at home or on the road. The balance when you’re talking about the competition in our league is really good.”
After the Razorbacks (10-3, 1-0) won on the road in an SEC opener for the first time since beating Georgia 79-75 in 2015, their next two games are at home against Florida (8-5, 0-1) tonight and LSU on Saturday in Walton Arena.
“You’d better be able to protect the home court,” Anderson said. “That’s the biggest key.”
Arkansas is 117-19 in Walton Arena during Anderson’s eight seasons as coach — including 47-15 in SEC games — but 7-2 this season.
Last month for the first time under Anderson the Razorbacks lost back-to-back non-conference games in Walton Arena against Western Kentucky 78-77 and Georgia Tech 69-65.
“We know we’ve got to take each game one step at a time obviously, but protecting Bud Walton Arena is real big,” Arkansas sophomore point guard Jalen Harris said. ‘Knowing we already dropped two here, we know we can’t afford to lose any more.
“The fans want to see a show and we have to put on a show each and every night in front of the fans.”
Arkansas won an SEC opener at Texas A&M for the first time in four tries. The Razorbacks started 0-1 in SEC play with road losses to the Aggies in 2013, 2014 and 2016.
“Getting that road win was big for us,” Arkansas junior forward Adrio Bailey said. “If we can go in and steal one on the road, we’re all about doing that. That’s what we take pride in, beating somebody in their own house.
“But as of now we’re trying to protect the home court and make sure the fans are here supporting us.”
Florida led South Carolina 58-44 with 11 minutes left, but couldn’t hold onto the 14-point lead and lost on a last-second dunk by Chris Silva.
“We blew one,” Florida coach Mike White said Tuesday when he met with the media before the Gators traveled to Fayetteville. “South Carolina came in here and just took it.”
The Gators lost their SEC opener for the first time since 2012.
“It’s tough to swallow,” Florida freshman guard Andrew Nembhard told reporters after the game. “We didn’t do our jobs today. We definitely should have won that game.”
Florida lost to South Carolina after pounding Butler 77-43 at home in its previous game on Dec. 29.
“Ten days ago we looked like a top 10 team — in my opinion — and Butler’s a good team,” White said. “Then we can look like we did the other day. Not to take anything away from South Carolina.
“South Carolina came in here and they’d had some poor performances and they had their juices flowing and they played really well and they deserved it.”
The Razorbacks figure the Gators will have extra motivation tonight, especially with a home game looming against No. 3 Tennessee on Saturday.
“They’re probably pretty mad they lost to South Carolina at home,” Harris said.
“So they’re going to try to come in and do what South Carolina did to them.”
Florida hasn’t started 0-2 in SEC play since 2010 when the Gators lost at Vanderbilt 95-87 and to No. 2 Kentucky at home 89-77.
“I’m pretty sure their emotions are going to be high,” Bailey said. “They’re going to be eager to get a win because they felt like they should have won that game against South Carolina at their house.
“They’re going to come in and try to take their frustrations out on us. But we’re going to do what we’re supposed to do, lock in and try to protect the house.”
KeVaughn Allen, Florida’s senior guard from Little Rock, said the Gators need to regain the edge they had in beating Butler by 34 points.
“I feel like we’ve got to find a way to play that way every game,” Allen said to Florida media. “Whatever we did that day, we’ve just got to do it.
“I feel like everybody was on the same page in that game, out there having fun and playing off one another. We were just out there connected.
“No matter who we play, we’ve got to bring the same intensity for every team.”
Florida avenged a 61-54 loss to Butler earlier this season in the Bahamas. Three of the Gators’ losses have been to teams now nationally ranked — at Florida State, against Oklahoma in the Bahamas and to Michigan State at home — and they’ve beaten Stanford in the Bahamas and West Virginia in New York.
“A very hard-nosed, athletic team,” Anderson said of the Gators. “Great perimeter players. Very athletic team.
“So it’s going to be another opportunity to go out and continue to get better. We had a good win at A&M, but that one’s over with.”