Florida head coach Mike White was optimistic right after the injury that John Egbunu might be back in due time even though team trainer Duke Werner held him out of the rest of the game after it was hurt. White’s worst fears weren’t realized until the next day when they got the diagnostic testing back on the injury.
“It was the next day when Duke had his MRI done with him,” White said about when he first knew for sure that Egbunu would be done for the year. “But, right when it happened. … ACL’s can be weird. It hurt, but it wasn’t excruciating for him. After the game it didn’t swell a bunch, so we were hopeful. Then the next morning it had swollen up overnight. That’s when Duke thought there was a possibility it could be worse than the original thought, postgame.
“(It’s a) really, really tough deal for John, of course.”
Unfortunately for Egbunu who was in his second season of playing for the Gators after transferring from South Florida in 2014, he will miss the end of both seasons. Egbunu had to have surgery on a thumb at the end of last season and missed the NIT Tournament run by the team.
“It’s two seasons in a row when he can’t finish the season with his teammates,” White said. “He’s worked really hard. He tried to fight through it last year when he could before the surgery with his thumb.
“He’d really been playing well as of late. It’s easy to say, people say that, ‘He’s playing his best basketball.’ He really was. He was kind of in a slump there midseason and the last two to three weeks he’d really been coming. The exact game he gets hurt, Auburn, and he’s off to a great start. He had a couple of monster dunks. He was making some big plays. It’s really unfortunate.”
Egbunu has been a big part of the makeup of the success of this team and a popular player among his teammates. They were hopeful he would be back and when the news was shared that he wouldn’t they were crushed.
“For our team… our team is shook up, of course,” White said. It was an emotional meeting when John let the team know that he was out for the season. Our guys were really shook up. I feel bad for Kasey and Justin and Canyon and Schuyler and the other seniors and the rest of his teammates. But you feel terrible for John.”
Beyond the personal side of this story, the gators have to figure out how to handle the personnel situation they are dealt with heading forward. White and his staff have a lot of things going through their head in how to handle things with their monster inside man out for the rest of the year.
“You don't plan on it happening, so you're sitting here, we're playing really well… we've won seven in a row, and we're in a great rhythm,” White said. “John's starting to come, and it's just, it's tough. What do you do? As I told the guys, it's part of the game of basketball. It's part of life. It's not the only adversity we're going to face this season, next season. It's not the only adversity John's going to face the rest of his life. You have to deal with it. There's a game to be played tomorrow. We've got to play the game tomorrow. Mississippi State doesn't feel bad for us. Ben Howland doesn't feel bad for us. I'm sure they've had their injuries, and other teams have had their injuries. We just have to make do. We have to find a way."
It is going to take a team effort to replace what Egbunu brings to the table. The Gators have won without him already this year, but matchups are going to be tough when they play big and physical teams. There are going to have to be several different ways to attack the situation.
“Guys need to step up,” White said. “That’s our only choice. Kevarrius Hayes has got to be really solid. He’s got to be intelligent with his amount of physicality. We’ve got to try and do our best to keep him out of foul trouble. Schuyler Rimmer has got to be ready. We’ve got to get Gorjok Gak healthy. We’ve got to get Keith Stone back healthy. Justin Leon will get a couple of reps today at the five just in case. We need to go there with foul trouble or other things like that.”
Hayes is especially important and he has got to play hard and at the same time stay out of foul trouble. There is a hard line to draw, but the sophomore center just has to play intelligently.
“All I know is to talk to him just like that and just to tell him, he’s got to … we’ve been talking to him about it all year, him and John,” White said about being smart while still playing physical. “He can’t relax for a split second. He can’t get out of a stance. He can’t make a mistake, because they’re just more magnified. His fouls now are more important. We’ve got to use him a little bit more wisely. We’ll challenge him in that regard right there. There’s got to be a balance. He’s got to be really aggressive, but he’s got to be really sound.”
Luckily for White and his team, Hayes is a steady personality and always works hard. He soaks in everything he is taught and will likely pick up his game knowing he has to.
“I don’t expect him to be any different,” White said of Hayes. “We haven’t even had the conversation. He was the same yesterday. He’s going to be the same today. That might be a good thing. The fact that Kevarrius is so consistent he’s not going to make it a bigger deal than he is. The positive of that is he probably won’t put too much pressure on himself as other guys in this situation might do. Again, we’ve talked to him about fouls and being solid and stuff like that. He’s started before. We use that word consistent with him all the time - he’s going to be the same guy.”
It is still going to take more than Hayes to help here, because fouls are going to be an issue at some point. The Gators have gotten better overall at rebounding with a real mental change in that regard. They have to continue to attack the boards as a team and help out the interior guys when they can.
It may mean at times, going to a smaller lineup.
“We’ll need to, not out of want, but maybe out of necessity with (Keith) Stone maybe getting some five, and (Justin) Leon getting some five,” White said of using some others not used to playing the center spot. “We’d be awfully small, but we may have no other choice if it gets to that point. Again, until (Gorjok) Gak gets back healthy.”
Freshman center Gak is also out with a foot injury sustained earlier in the week. His return date is still uncertain, but should be back in the next week or so. He’s a talented player, but lack of experience, especially with the games left on the schedule, is something that can’t be taught for the young man.
“We’ll need something from him,” White said of Gak. “He’s capable with length and his athleticism - he’s capable. Gak can catch it, he can pass it. He just hasn’t been given a lot opportunity, of course, because you have John and Kevarrius both playing pretty well all year. And then at times you’ve had Schuyler Rimmer given opportunities before him. So, he’ll be thrown out there when he gets back healthy. He’s progressed throughout the year, not as much as if he’d been given game opportunity. But he’s progressed, somewhat, through practices.”
The Gators have plenty of parts that play well at different times. They’re going to have to throw out some different lineups as the season moves on to protect fouls and because of eventual matchups. One thing for sure, and White has preached this from the beginning, it is going to have to be a team effort to get it done.