DALLAS — A day before the Florida basketball team’s most important game yet, its second-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Texas Tech, Gators center Kevarrius Hayes was making the rounds in the locker room playing mock reporter and keeping his teammates loose.
To the surprise of nobody.
He started with guard Egor Koulechov.
“So yesterday, questionable decision on a fastbreak. Did you know Chris Chiozza was the one you were throwing the lob to?” Hayes said, asking the tough questions from the start.
“Yes, he gave me a look,” Koulechov responded, explaining the botched aerial connection to the Gators’ diminutive point guard during the second half of Florida’s lopsided win over St. Bonaventure on Thursday night.
“Despite all that, you had an awesome, killer play that surprised me — that deep 3 you took straight in transition. How did you feel about that one?” Hayes continued.
“I felt good. I felt like it was going in, like all of them,” Koulechov joked before turning the tables.
“Let me ask you a question. Can you tell them what this is right here? And this right here? How did they get there?” Koulechov said revealing red scratches on his upper arms sustained in practice.
“It was Dontay [Bassett] wasn’t it?” Hayes asked.
Koulechov shook his head, adding, “I think it was you.”
Interview over. With that Hayes was on his way to grill Gators walk-ons Mak Krause and Andrew Fava. Then it was on to leading scorer Jalen Hudson, who tried to elude his teammate’s spotlight before begrudgingly taking a question about his monstrous put-back dunk late in that win Thursday night.
“It was all right,” Hudson said, not giving his teammate much.
Hayes didn’t need any help, though.
“You kind of dunked on me too. I feel you, I feel you. It’s aggression right there, the price of playing hard. … Now I’m on a poster,” he said, eliciting a genuine laugh from Hudson.
From there, it was on to center Gorjok Gak and then freshman forward Chase Johnson. Hayes sat on Johnson’s lap as Bassett keeled over in laughter nearby.
Making his rounds, Hayes saw forward Keith Stone sleeping on the floor in the corner and nudged him awake before taking his headphones, nodding along to the beat. There was no escaping Hayes.
“You can’t be asleep. You’ve got to go practice,” he said.
The Florida players are used to Hayes’ humor by now.
The 6-foot-9 junior, whom his teammates know by his nickname “Spidey,” is Florida’s veteran big man and its resident comic relief artist.
He averages 4.8 points and 5.0 rebounds while making 24 starts this season.
Tasked with greater responsibility in a thinned frontcourt, he hasn’t quite delivered the increased production many had hoped for this season. His scoring has dropped a little while his rebounding has increased marginally. He leads the team with 64 blocks and ranks third with 31 steals.
All the same, though, is that trademark smile and his needling of teammates when they need it.
“He’s a character. He’s always up to something. He’s out here being a reporter right now. He’s always doing something,” Chiozza said. “He’s one of those goofy guys that always keeps a smile on your face and he’s always smiling, so a good person to have in the locker room.
“Even when you’re down, everybody’s not feeling like doing something or just tired, he brings some energy to us and keeps everybody going.”
Said Koulechov: “He’s got a lot of energy, brings some joy to the locker room. You’ve got to have a few characters in the locker room.”
Hayes said he became more a vocal presence over the second half of his sophomore season last year.
According to Florida coach Mike White, though, Hayes can and will take a serious tone with his teammates when needed.
“He, more so than anybody else, has become the guy that challenges others,” White said. “When his team loses a drill in practice — we try to make everything competitive, of course, every day in practice — and he’s the one guy that has learned to hate losing. And he makes it known, and he’ll call a guy out, ‘Hey, that’s not acceptable.
“Even when he maybe has messed a play up or he hasn’t played to his ability, he’s our most competitive guy on a daily basis. And that I think overall has made us a little bit more competitive. … I’ve talked a lot about how much better we are defensively today than we were four months ago and on the glass and how much grittier we are. And without Kevarrius bringing that presence, I don’t think we grow nearly as much in that area.”
It’s harder to picture Hayes as a stern enforcer because that smile is defining of his personality, and he’s looked totally in his element playing reporter for the Gators’ video staff.
“I feel like it helps everybody [stay] relaxed,” he said. “A lot of times the stage can get too big and everybody is tense and tight, so anxious, being able to relax and take it one step at a time lets the guys ease into the game. And then we’re not all in our head, we’re actually enjoying the moment. Being here is a great opportunity. Take advantage of that.”
And how does he think his teammates respond to his routine?
“I feel like Stone gets a little bit annoyed, but that’s just because he hates the camera. I feel like everybody else is pretty easy going and kind of like[s] it,” he said.
Indeed, Hayes looked like a natural in front of the camera asking the tough questions Friday. Might that be a career he revisits down the road one day?
“I haven’t really put much thought into it, but hey, you never know,” he said.