Kevarrius Hayes has to step up with Egbunu out

The doctors made the call. Sophomore center John Egbunu had a window of opportunity to repair his thumb medially this week and so Thursday he had surgery on a torn ligament which means he will miss any game the Gators play from here on out. That means a guy like Kevarrius Hayes has to step up.

Egbunu has been a pillar of strength in the middle for Florida this season. A big time space eater and rebounder, he has post moves to get to the basket once he receives it inside. But, that is gone for the rest of the year and Hayes, just a true freshman, will have to pick up a lot of the slack.

“It’s just man up, more opportunity for Kevarrius and Schuyler,” Florida head coach Mike White said of Hayes and junior Schuler Rimmer, another post presence. “We’ve played smaller this year with Dorian (Finney-Smith) and a couple of big wings with Devin Robinson and Justin Leon. It gives you different options.

“Are you as good scoring on the interior? Or are you as big and strong defending and rebounding on the interior? No. But, those guys have to step up.”

For Hayes, things haven’t been easy in his rookie year. With Egbunu doing what he has done, Hayes has been able to wait his time on the bench and come in sporadically to help. He’s averaging just 2.1 points and 2.5 rebounds per game, but White says he brings a lot more than just what shows up on the stat sheet and not sure how much more stats wise he will bring to the table.

“It’s hard to make a big jump for a freshman who is learning his way during a season when you aren’t getting a lot of opportunities,” White said. “I think we’ll see more strides from him this offseason.

“I do think he’s been really consistent for a freshman in terms of energy and effort, his intensity and focus in practice he’s mature beyond his years. He’s got a ways to go as a player as most freshmen do, but we know exactly what we’re going to get from Kevarrius this afternoon and for the most part in games as well.”

“I think he’s going to play really hard. He’ll be in a stance. He’ll be sprinting around the court trying to his best to get the offensive glass. He’ll be communicating ball screens to get to his feet. He’s an intensity guy, a motor guy.

“Whether he scores it effectively for us or converts from the foul line or makes a freshman mistake or two, we don’t know those things. But, from an effort standpoint, he’s been really consistent.”

At 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds, Hayes often finds he is undersized at the position. White says he has to do a better job of anticipating things to make life easier for himself as he continues to develop physically as well.

“He’s got to beat guys to spots,” White said. “When he gets in wrestling matches he often loses and those result in fouls.”

Ohio State, the Gators second round opponent in the NIT, represents a different challenge though.

“These front court guys (at Ohio State) are similar to him in some regards. They are a little bit taller and longer. They have three interior guys that all can run and jump and block shots. It will be a physical game, at the same time it isn’t like Kevarrius is wrestling with Tyler Davis at Texas A&M. Hopefully he can avoid foul trouble and be effective for us.”

White definitely sees a bright future with Hayes and knows that every minute on the floor he is getting the kid’s best.  

“I don’t want to build him up too much,” he said. “But from a maturity standpoint he’s been impressive. We know what we’re getting every day.

“He needs an offseason and another offseason. The hardest thing is that he’s obtained some of the hardest things to obtain over time, the things you don’t really like to do and the things as a successful basketball player you have to make yourself do. He’s got those things. It’s a matter of making strides in terms of finishing around the basket, expanding his range to 15-17-19 feet over time, converting at a higher level at the foul line, and becoming a little better passer over time. He’s talented. He’s going to be a successful player here.

Where his team stands…

With the Gators exciting offensive explosion on Tuesday against North Florida, we saw a side of Florida that has gotten better and was hitting on all cylinders for the first half of that contest.

“I feel like we’ve fallen into more of an offensive rhythm as of late,” White said. “You evolve offensively and defensively throughout the season after wins and after losses, after a weeklong break during Christmas when no game and you have more time to practice. I know offensively we’re better than we were a couple of months ago.

“Guard) Kasey Hill has made a big jump here lately and we’re playing s little better transition offense. We’ve learned that we have really struggled at the foul line and it is something we have to address a ton. We have to figure out a way to convert there.”

There have been lapses on defense, but White says the defense has been the most responsive since the start of the season.  

“Defensively, I’m very pleased for the most part over the course of the year in how we’ve defended. We’re sitting here at 18th overall in the country in our Ken Pom numbers. Can we get a little better? Yes, we have to figure out a way to get a little bit better, but we’ve been pretty consistent in that regard.”

The NIT 2-seed Gators will travel to 3-seed Ohio State on Sunday for second round action. The game will be aired at noon on ESPN.  

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