GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After playing just 48 minutes during the regular season and being relegated to the bench for 9 of the previous 10 games, Florida basketball freshman center Gorjok Gak was right in the middle of things in the NCAA Tournament last week.
Late in the first half against East Tennessee State he announced his presence with a put-back dunk off a missed shot by teammate Kasey Hill. And in the next game against Virginia, Gak had a season-high 6 points and 2 rebounds in 10 minutes of action.
He went 5-of-5 from the field in those games and perhaps earned a little more confidence from the coaching staff and his teammates that he can be a contributor as the Gators continue their March Madness run Friday night with a Sweet 16 game against Wisconsin.
“I’m really proud of Gorjok. He’s come a long way,” coach Mike White said. “He’s a guy, talk about some maturity for a freshman. He’s pulled a bunch of DNPs, and he’s had several reasons to pout or to not be ready when his number’s called, and he’s given us some productive minutes. And he’s had a couple highlights we showed the team (Monday) where he drew some applause and hoorahs from guys. They’re proud for him too.”
Gak has always had intriguing potential as a 6-foot-11, 231-pound prospect from Sydney, Australia, with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and obvious athleticism. He was rated a 3-star recruit by ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports, but his freshman season faced obstacles from the beginning.
He was initially ruled ineligible for the season by the NCAA over questions about how many games he played for a prep school in Bradenton, Fla., after arriving from Australia. He would have to wait until his sophomore year and have only three years of eligibility.
But the day before the first game, in response to an appeal by Florida, the NCAA granted Gak a waiver to compete immediately.
He admits now there was a long period when he wondered if he’d even get to play at all this season.
“I just left that all to my coaches and the NCAA,” he said.
The eligibility was one hurdle. Earning playing time was another.
As a raw prospect, he was limited to a few minutes here and there through the first part of the season. Once SEC play began, Gak rode the bench for seven consecutive games, played limited minutes in the next three and then headed back to the bench another seven games. A foot sprain contributed to the latter stretch.
After starting center John Egbunu was lost to a torn ACL last month, White continued to mention Gak as a possible factor in the Gators’ suddenly very thin front court, but the playing time didn’t follow.
Until last week.
“I mean, I just always stayed patient and ready for whenever coach calls out my number. I just want to do whatever I can to help the team,” Gak said in the locker room after that win over Virginia. “I always just prayed a lot and listened to my mom, who says ‘Be patient, everything will fall into your hands. Just always stay ready. You never know when your time will come.’ ”
It came on the biggest stage of the season, and with Florida now facing a Wisconsin team that has what White called the best front court the Gators have played, his services may be even more in demand.
The concern for the Gators in such a physical inside matchup is keeping starting center Kevarrius Hayes out of foul trouble. They won’t have the luxury to go with a smaller lineup as much against a Badgers team featuring 6-foot-10 first-team All-Big Ten center Ethan Happ. Any minutes Gak can provide when Hayes is out of the game could be key.
“He made some hustle plays, some motor plays, active on the offensive glass, running the floor,” White said of Gak’s contributions last week. “I think when you compliment that with his hands and his length, he’s going be a good player. He works at it. He’s got a ways to go. But he’s got a high ceiling.”
While Gak threw down crowd-pleasing dunks last week, he also struggled from the free-throw line. In his first two attempts against East Tennessee State, he air-balled one shot and barely grazed the front of the rim on the other.
He went 0-for-4 from the line in those two games and is 1-for-10 overall this season.
“It’s just confidence, I guess. I’ve just got to be confident because I know I can make free throws. I’ve just got to be confident,” Gak said in the locker room Saturday night.
Teammate Canyon Barry overheard the conversation from a few lockers down and chimed in.
“Switch to underhand. I’m ready to teach you whenever you want,” Barry said
“No, CB,” Gak replied.
Somebody else chimed in that Gak actually went 10-of-10 at the line in practice recently.
He’ll have the whole offseason to work on getting more confident with that shot, but otherwise he looked pretty comfortable on the national stage.
“Just embrace the moment,” as he put it.
Said Hayes: “I think he’s handled it well, being out there on the big court. He hasn’t let it get to him too much. He just does what he knows how to do, and I think for that reason he’s been a big help.”