One day we might look back on the 2015-16 season and realize what a blessing it was that the Gators went to the NIT.
After Florida’s first game NIT win over North Florida, John Egbunu had a torn ligament in his thumb that required surgery which forced freshman Kevarrius Hayes to start at center the next two games, a win over Ohio State in Columbus and a loss to George Washington in D.C. Instead of playing like a wide-eyed freshman who had hung a few donuts during the regular season, Hayes played like a veteran, scoring 14 points in each game while hitting 11 of his 12 shots and going 6-6 at the foul line.
That experience was invaluable not just for the confidence it gave Hayes going into this season but because he understood in both NIT starts that there wasn’t much in the way of backup help so he had to play smart, efficient basketball.
With John Egbunu’s torn ACL that ended his season in the first half of Florida’s 114-95 win over Auburn Tuesday night, Hayes once again is thrust into a starting role and once again backup help is limited.
From here on out, Hayes is the man in the middle for 13th-ranked Florida (21-5, 11-2 SEC), which starts the 5-game grind that ends the regular season Saturday afternoon in Starkville vs. Mississippi State. Hayes is averaging 6.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game in 15.4 minutes but he’s had some particularly good outings even recently.
When Egbunu missed the Charlotte and Little Rock games with hamstring issues, Hayes filled in admirably. He had 9 points and 5 rebounds against Charlotte and followed that up with 12 points and 8 rebounds against Little Rock. He played 22 minutes in UF’s next game at Arkansas and contributed 10 points and 6 rebounds. When the Gators began their recent 7-game winning streak that has propelled them into a first place tie with Kentucky at the top of the SEC, Hayes came through with 12 points and 2 rebounds vs. LSU and then delivered a career-best 20 points to go with 9 rebounds and 3 blocked shots at Oklahoma.
He played 17 minutes Tuesday night against Auburn and delivered 9 points, 3 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.
With Hayes playing so well off the bench and complementing Egbunu with aggressive shot blocking defense, the Gators had quite the punch in the middle. Egbunu was averaging 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds when he went down and he was almost certain to score his second straight double-double (he had 11 points and 10 rebounds in the win over Texas A&M) with 10 points and 4 first half rebounds against Auburn. Having a combined 14 points and 10.4 rebounds per game to go with a pair of shot blockers gave Mike White plenty of options.
Without Egbunu, Hayes has to step up his play as a starter. Schuyler Rimmer is the only backup at the moment since freshman Gorjak Gak is dealing with a sprained ankle that might keep him sidelined another week. Rimmer is averaging 1.5 points and 0.9 rebounds in 5.5 minutes per game. Rimmer is a wide body (6-10, 250 pounds) but he has limited offensive range. He plays decent position defense and doesn’t commit silly fouls.
Freshman Gorjak Gak (6-11, 231 pounds) is a work in progress. He’s played in 10 games, averages 1.1 points and 1.2 rebounds per game but he won’t be available for about a week.
Florida coach Mike White may have to use a little bit of smoke and mirrors to get productivity and keep Hayes fresh. He has no one who can match Egbunu for sheer intimidation factor or power on either the defensive end or the boards, but we might see White get a little bit creative and steal some minutes by using redshirt freshman Keith Stone (6-8, 240) and senior Justin Leon (6-8, 206) in the middle. Stone is stronger physically, but Leon is wiry strong and a very good rebounder. Both of them have the ability to stretch the floor so if they can play some center and knock down a 3-ball or two, then White can force some serious defensive adjustments by opponents.
Without Egbunu not all is lost for the Gators although their already small margin of error becomes razor thin. Hayes will have to play smart and stay out of foul trouble. It might mean being a bit more choosy about when to go for a blocked shot or sometimes just letting someone dunk the ball on him, but he’s got to use his head and stay on the court. He has to remember how well he played in the NIT last year when there was no backup and duplicate that effort.
It will also mean that Florida’s perimeter defense will have to ratchet things up considerably to help compensate. If the Gators can force opponents to set up their offense 2-3 feet beyond where they’re comfortable, it draws the big guys farther out and keeps them away from the rim. Expect White to press a bit more to force opponents into a running game. Florida should have a quickness advantage on nearly every team left on the schedule and an up and down game can also keep it opponents from exploiting things on the inside.
Kevarrius Hayes will feel the pressure to deliver but this isn’t a one-man show. White has some tinkering to do and if he can find ways to take advantage of what Florida does best, which is run the floor and force tempo on opponents with in your shorts defense for 90 feet, then UF could still surprise. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible.
TAKING THE LEAD ON MINORITY HIRING
In a perfect world, skin color wouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world and kids who are being recruited to play college football do take notice of the racial makeup of coaching staffs. We have seen what having an African-American defensive coordinator could do for recruiting when Charlie Strong was working for Ron Zook and Urban Meyer. We saw just recently the benefit of having Randy Shannon as the defensive coordinator as UF shocked the recruiting world with its racehorse finish in the final five days.
As Hollywood Bob pointed out in his excellent piece about Jim McElwain and minority hiring for Florida’s football staff, the fact that the Gators have more minority coaches than any school in the SEC is going to pay big dividends in the long run. We all wish to believe that we’re beyond that sort of thing, that kids want to go play where there are the best coaches and not simply coaches from their same ethnic group, but kids do notice. They see a Florida roster that is dominated by African-American kids and now they see African-American coaches in direct proportion to the roster makeup. We will see dividends on the recruiting trail.
Each year the NCAA laments the lack of African-American head coaches and coordinators. The only way those numbers will change will be to see the ethnic makeup change on coaching staffs. The more minorities on coaching staffs will increase the opportunities for promotions.
SEC BASKETBALL NEWS
Arkansas (19-7, 8-5 SEC) 83, #19 South Carolina (20-6, 10-3 SEC) 76: The Gamecocks fell out of the three-way tie with Florida and Kentucky at the top of the SEC standings with a loss in Columbia to Arkansas. The Gamecocks were among the nation’s leaders in defensive efficiency coming into the game but they gave up 53.6% shooting overall and 7-14 from the 3-point line to the Razorbacks, who got 23 points from Jaylen Barford and 20 from Dusty Hannahs, who combined for 6-11 shooting from the 3-point line. For Arkansas this might be the win that keeps the Razorbacks in the NCAA Tournament discussion and could ultimately save HBC Mike Anderson’s job.
Alabama (15-10, 8-5 SEC) 57, Missouri (7-18, 2-11 SEC) 54: Alabama remained an outside possibility at making the NCAA Tournament by rallying past Missouri in the second half at Columbia in one of the ugliest games of the year in the SEC. In winning, Bama hit only 35.8% of hits shots overall and only 5-20 from the 3-point stripe. Missouri was even worse – 34% overall and 4-19 from the 3-point line.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Without John Egbunu can Florida still earn a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
From 1965-67 The Byrds were money in the bank but personality clashes that led to the and ousting David Crosby in 1968 led to their demise. That three-year stretch from 1965-67 was special, however, and their harmony was incredible.