The Florida Gators’ will enter the 2017-18 season in a very similar situation to the one it ended with last season at center. Junior Kevarrius Hayes will have to lead a young, beaten up group at his position.
Hayes took over starting duties last season after now senior John Egbunu went down with an ACL injury against Auburn on February 14. With Egbunu out, Gorjok Gak still developing as a freshman and Dontay Bassett going through a redshirt year due to injury, Hayes was practically the only option for Florida to have a bigger lineup.
He filled in well, as he averaged 6.2 points per game and finished second on the team with 160 total rebounds on the season.
While it was tough for Egbunu to watch someone else take over his spot for the remainder of a run to the Elite Eight, he was impressed by what he saw.
“It was great watching him,” Egbunu said. “He did a great job. We had a lot of guys rally around him and he stepped up to the challenge and he did great.”
Right now, Hayes and Bassett are the only two players healthy at center. Gak should be ready to go by the time the season gets here, but he is still being held out for precautionary measures after an injury suffered over the summer. Egbunu and freshman Isaiah Stokes are still rehabbing their ACL injuries and both are not expected to be back until January.
“We’re really banged up there. With three bigs out — in Stokes, Gak and Egbunu — we’re really thin up front … At the ‘5,’ in terms of experience, Kevarrius is doing what he does; as consistent as they get. After that, we’re relying on Dontay Bassett, who hasn’t played a minute of college basketball.”
That means Hayes is back in a spot where he must be a leader and increase his production even more. He takes that challenge head on, and said he enjoys feeling the pressure to perform. His biggest focus over the offseason was improving his physicality so he can perform in those situations, especially going up against bigger players in the league.
One thing that hasn’t changed is his work ethic, leadership and consistency. Mike White has been praising Hayes about how hard he works in practice every day since he stepped on campus, and he takes pride in that.
“I like to lead by example,” Hayes said. “Coach always says I have a high motor and I try to thrive on that, like keep going and going even when it’s tiring, just keep pushing until I can’t go anymore. I just try to help on the team in whichever way I can, so any impact in the game really helps … Everybody plays a part, and I just want to play mine.”
Hayes is not only an example at his position, but an example for how the game should be played for everyone on the team. Teammates have taken notice of both his leadership and his game overall.
Junior guard Jalen Hudson said he has improved in all facets, from rebounding at a higher level to hitting more jumpers. What he does on the court every day inspires players like Hudson to be better.
“That’s one of the guys I look to,” Hudson said. “Whenever I want to feel tired, I look at him and he’s not even breathing hard. Obviously, he’s very helpful everyday but he’s going to be helpful in games as well. I’m looking forward to it.”
Both Hayes and Bassett have endured a heavy workload in the first week of official practices as the Gators battle so many injuries, but that should pay off for them once the season rolls around. Hayes has already taken on a starting role and played a lot of minutes, so it shouldn’t be too hard for him to adjust to that again this time around. Behind him, Florida may struggle with depth and limited experience for the first part of the season, but in January, things could really start looking up.
Egbunu and Stokes will both be back to add some size. Once Stokes is healthy, White and the staff will make a decision to either use him or redshirt him depending on how things are going and how quickly he develops. Egbunu will look to get back to it and close out his college career on a high note.
“You’ve got guys that are all a little bit different,” White said of his front court. “You’ve got guys that are going to play hard. I think we know what we’re going to get for the most part, at least from a couple of those guys, from a few of those guys. But certainly, we’ll go from having some questions to becoming very deep in the front court when you get John back.”
While Florida waits for that time to come and for everyone to finally be healthy again, Hayes is a pretty good guy to have eating up the minutes and leading the group.