Monday March 19, 2012Gators Have Forged New Identity in Weeks Following Yeguete Injury
PHOENIX -- The day was Feb. 23, a Thursday, that Florida coach Billy Donovan gathered his team for probably the most pivotal meeting of the 2011-12 season.
Two nights earlier, sophomore forward Will Yeguete had suffered a season-ending broken foot in a victory against Auburn. Yeguete wasn’t much of a scorer, but his value as a 22-minute-a-game reserve, outstanding defender, rebounder and instinctive frontman in the UF press was on the mind of every coach and player in that room.
Donovan read a list of Yeguete’s contributions -- both tangible and intangible -- that impacted the game: Rebounding. Defense. Energy. Charges. Hustle. Attitude.
“Will’s gone. He’s not coming back,” Donovan told the team, hammering home the point. “But there’s not one thing on this list that any of you guys aren’t capable of giving our team. We need you guys to step up. Now.”
With four games left in the regular season, UF had to remake itself on the fly. Two days later, they went to Georgia to see how up they were for challenge.
The Gators were stomped 76-62 by one of the 11th-best team in the Southeastern Conference standings.
But just over three weeks later, Florida (25-10) is in the Sweet 16 with a date against Marquette in the West Region semifinals Thursday night (10:10 p.m. EST) at US Airways Center.
Somewhere in between, something happened.
“Our players were put into his position and had a totally different respect level for what he [did],” Donovan said of Yeguete’s very unique role Monday. “As time went on, our guys started to see different things they needed to do; not to to be Will Yeguete, but to make up for some of the things he did before he got hurt.”
First, the Gators needed to take a few steps back before figuring out how to take a bunch of steps forward.
“We really didn’t know what the team was going to look like without Will,” sophomore center Patric Young said. “We just knew we needed everybody to raise up their level of play as far as focusing on defense and rebounding because Will did such a good job with those things for this team.”
The loss to the Bulldogs easily could have set off alarms.
Georgia entered the game ranked last in the SEC in scoring and shooting percentage, yet ripped UF for more than 53-percent shooting and tallied the third-most points of its season. The Gators, meanwhile, looked disjointed on offense, shot a season-worst 21.7 percent from the 3-point line and were-out-hustled on both ends.
Since that game, however, Florida has faced six opponents that reached the NCAA Tournament, including top-ranked Kentucky twice (playing well before crumbling in the final nine minutes the first time, then losing by three points in the SEC Tournament) and the two teams, Virginia and Norfolk State, the Gators dispatched by a combined 60 points in the first two rounds of regional play.
Along the way, sophomore forward Casey Prather -- by necessity -- has received increased minutes, and with them an increased confidence. Junior transfer Mike Rosario, though far from perfect, has played far more to his coach’s liking. Freshman guard Bradley Beal has become an outstanding rebounder. Shooting guard Kenny Boynton has become a more willing rebounder. Forward Erik Murphy has picked up his defensive game. Point guard Erving Walker has been more focused with tempo and decision-making. And Young went through an attitude adjustment.
UF lost four straight to end the regular season, but through those defeats the Gators collectively pitched in to help negate the significant void Yeguete’s injury left behind.
“I felt we were playing better after the Georgia game, but the results weren’t showing,” Donovan said.
The reinforcement, however, was positive. Those results, instead, reared themselves in March, the most crucial and pressure-packed time of year.
“We never really panicked,” Murphy said of the days that followed the Georgia debacle. “I think, we just spent those games we lost kind of chipping away at some things and really started figuring some things out as a team. We started playing better and better, and just kept grinding away at it; kept trying to fill in those gaps that Will’s injury left behind.”
Together, they’ll try to figure some more things out the next few days.
The players lifted weights Monday morning in Omaha, Neb., before departing for Arizona. The team arrived in Phoenix mid-afternoon, but had the day off from practice.
The No. 7-seed and 25th-ranked Gators will meet tonight and begin studying No. 3-seed and 11th-ranked Marquette, then return to practice Tuesday afternoon with a two-hour session at Arizona State University.
“It took us some time to work through some things,” Donovan said.
Turns out, the work -- even the losses -- was worth it.