GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The bad news came Wednesday with Florida basketball riding a 7-game winning streak and turning into a popular pick to make a run in March.
Junior center John Egbunu had an MRI exam on his left knee, revealing a torn ACL that ends his season and deals the Gators a significant obstacle the rest of the way.
Egbunu struggled much of the season to find his offensive rhythm, but he came on strong the past 2 games. More importantly, he was a considerable asset on defense.
Sophomore center Kevarrius Hayes should be a fine replacement in the starting lineup, but the lack of depth at center is a glaring issue for the No. 15 Gators (21-5, 11-2 SEC) in their pursuit of an SEC title and a deep NCAA Tournament run.
“You don’t plan on it happening, so you’re sitting here and we’re playing really well, we’ve won seven in a row, we’re in a great rhythm. John’s starting to come (on), and it’s just, it’s tough. What do you do?” Florida coach Mike White said Friday. “But 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’ve got 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. So we’ve just got to make do. We’ve got to find a way.”
Florida visits Mississippi State (14-11, 5-8) in Starkville for a 2 p.m. ET tip-off Saturday as White and his staff begin to figure out how the team will have to play moving forward.
Hole in the Gators’ roster
Egbunu was the Gators’ most physical frontcourt player at 6-foot-11, 255 pounds. He averaged 7.8 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds per game. He turned in his first double-double of the season last weekend against Texas A&M and had 10 points and 4 rebounds in 8 minutes at Auburn on Tuesday night before the injury.
Hayes, listed at 6-foot-9, 218 pounds, averages 6.2 points and 3.8 boards per game while leading the team with 41 blocked shots. He’s a smaller physical presence, but he had nice moments this season. His best game was a 20-point, 9-rebound, 3-block performance at Oklahoma late last month.
Now the Gators will see what Hayes can do with a significant increase on his 15.4 minutes per game.
While remaining out of foul trouble.
That’s the key now. Without Egbunu, the Gators’ only other traditional center options are 6-foot-10 senior walk-on Schuyler Rimmer (5.5 minutes per game to this point) and little-used 6-foot-11 freshman Gorjok Gak, who is expected to miss up to 2 weeks with a foot sprain. Hayes had at least 4 fouls in 2 of the past 4 games games despite not topping 17 minutes in any of those games.
“We’ve been talking to him about (staying out of foul trouble) all year, him and John. And now it’s more important,” White said. “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.”
Gak played 40 minutes all season, stretched over parts of 10 games. Still, White says the freshman from Australia has progressed and will contribute once he’s health.
“We’ll need something from him. And he’s capable with his length and his athleticism — he’s capable,” White said. “Gak can catch it, he can pass it. He just hasn’t been given a lot opportunity, of course, because you’ve got John and Kevarrius both playing pretty well all year. And then at times you’ve had Schuyler Rimmer who’s been 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.”
What are the options?
White acknowledged the Gators will have to start using smaller lineups to space out the minutes and have other options should Hayes get into foul trouble.
That means moving senior forward Justin Leon (6-foot-8, 206 pounds) or freshman Keith Stone (6-foot-8, 240) to the 5-spot at times.
“Yeah, we’ll need to, not out of want, but maybe out of necessity,” White said. “We’d be awfully small, but we have no other choice if it gets to that point. Again, until Gak gets back healthy.”
While it’s a tough break for the Gators, it’s a devastating setback for Egbunu.
He wasn’t able to finish last season because of a thumb injury, and now he’ll be relegated to watching from the bench as the Gators compete for an SEC title and try to make a memorable postseason run.
“Everybody’s first thought was just feeling bad for him. We didn’t really think about the team or anything. Everybody just was all more focused on him and how he was doing,” point guard Kasey Hill said.
Said White: “Yeah, it’s two seasons in a row he can’t finish the season with his teammates. 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. … Our team is shook up, of course. 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 (Barry) and Schuyler and the other seniors and the rest of his teammates. But you feel terrible for John.”