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Senior forward Will Yeguete provides the Gators with an array of intangibles on and off the court.

Friday February 7, 2014Glue Guy: Amid the Sizzle, Yeguete is the Substance

Senior forward Will Yeguete provides the Gators with an array of intangibles on and off the court.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Will Yeguete fumed as he sat on the bench, alone, during a timeout Tuesday night against Missouri.

The Florida Gators were down in the second half, not playing particularly well and were without the intensity and urgency Coach Billy Donovan demands. Moments earlier, Yeguete had chased Tigers guard Jordan Clarkson into what he thought was to be a trap with teammate Scottie Wilbekin, but orders came to get back and set the halfcourt defense.

Yeguete, clearly frustrated, backed off.

Will on benchA few minutes later, he was on the sidelines, getting an earful from the head coach. After stating his case, Yeguete took a moment to seperate from the team while it huddled. Back on air, ESPN cameras replayed the sidelines sequence, with play-by-play man Brad Nessler and analyst Dick Vitale wondering if Yeguete was in trouble and whether he’d come back in the game.

Regarding the former, no. Regarding the latter, without question.

The Gators aren't these Gators without Will Yeguete.

The reality:  "We were at home, so I thought we should be more aggressive and that made me upset,” he said. “I needed to calm myself down.”

The 6-foot-8 forward was back on the floor 2 1/2 minutes later -- of course, he was -- and went on to help his team win a 14th straight game, its 20th of the season and the 104th since he first set foot on campus with the rest of his now-senior classmates.

So it was, on a night when freshman Chris Walker stole the show in seven flashy debut minutes, Yeguete played his usual workmanlike game. He scored six points, grabbed six rebounds, took a charge, bodied big guys, banged beneath the glass and dove for loose balls in 24 very Will Yeguete-like minutes.

Walker brought some sizzle.

But Yeguete, as always, offered substance.

“The people who are in the fight -- the coaches and players, first and foremost -- understand what helps you win games and what prevents you from losing games,” UF assistant coach John Pelphrey said. “Will Yeguete brings all those things.”

This is not to suggest that Yeguete, from Bordeaux, France by way of Melbourne Florida Air Academy, is undervalued by UF fans. He’s one of the most popular student-athletes on campus, as evidenced by the orange “Mohawk Night” salute from the Rowdy Reptiles last season. Yeguete is a community service ambassador for the Gators, who goes out of his way to spend time with children.

Anyone who has gone to a women’s gymnastics meet, volleyball match or soccer game and seen Yeguete interact with the fans can attest to his accessibility and wonderful smile.

Remember all that Saturday when the third-ranked Gators (20-2, 9-0) face Alabama (9-13, 3-6) at the sold-out O’Connell Center. Now that Walker, the McDonald’s All-American and dunking machine, has rocked the Rowdy’s world with his smashing mini-debut, UF needs to refocus on the task of winning a second straight Southeastern Conference title. Yeguete is a key to that pursuit, starting with his defense, but also with his basketball savvy and instincts that impact the game in Florida’s favor without showing up in the box score or on "SportsCenter" highlights shows.

“I think I’ve played OK this season,” Yeguete said. “I’d like to do more.”

Yeguete on the floor He does plenty, especially when it comes to the dirty work underneath the basket as the team’s third-leading rebounder. He’s currently tied for the team lead in charges taken with six (and 26 for his career), the ultimate testament to a player willing to put his body on the line for the greater good.

“He may not put a lot of points on the board, but he does so many things. He’s always in the right place and is always going to be unselfish and encouraging to his teammates,” said senior center and best friend Patric Young. “Everybody loves Will for what he is as a player, but more for who he is as a person.”

The Gators had Wednesday off, but returned for a team meeting Thursday, their first gathering since beating Missouri. UF did not play particularly well in the game and that was a theme of the meeting; that and the need for each player to be better and more committed to their responsibilities on and off the floor. Donovan went after nearly every player on the team for what he saw as "slippage" from the expected standards.

Then he turned to Yeguete.

“I told him in front of the team that I really appreciated and admired what he does for us every day,” Donovan said. “He’s reliable, responsible, accountable, everything you want in a guy.”

His brushes with adversity, and how he has responded, are a testament to that.

Two Februarys ago, Yeguete broke his foot against Auburn at home. The injury was thought to be season-ending, but Yeguete, then a sophomore, worked overtime to try and get himself back for a taste of the postseason. He was actually healthy enough to play in the NCAA West Region final against Louisville, but the UF health staff just did not want to risk it.

“It was just too fast and we were too nervous about putting him out there that soon,” recalled trainer David “Duke” Werner. “If we’d won, he was going to play in the Final Four.”

The Gators lost by three points.

Then came his junior season. In UF’s third SEC game, a road rout of LSU, Yeguete felt a pop in his right knee. He finished the game, but the injury swelled badly the next day. Magnetic Resonance Imaging tests revealed some floating cartilage that could be treated.

Yeguete played seven more games, as UF opened the season 18-2, 8-0 in SEC play and shot to No. 2 in the national rankings. Then the Gators went to Arkansas and Yeguete felt his knee pop in the opening minutes. He limped to the bench and was done for the night. Florida lost big.

Back in Gainesville, the MRI showed that same piece of cartilage had become lodged in the knee joint. It was so bad, doctors told Yeguete, he would need micro-fracture surgery, the procedure that derailed the careers of such hoops notables as Penny Hardaway, Amare Stoudmire and Greg Oden.

But there was a second option.

Yeguete could have arthroscopic surgery and what amounted to a temporary fix. He would miss a month, but could return in time to join his teammates for the postseason.

He had missed the NCAA run the year before. He wasn’t going to do so again.

That was the path Yeguete chose and he navigated some dark and difficult days. His older brother had come to America to watch him play basketball for the first time ever. Instead, he saw him seated on the bench, crutches by his side.

“Not being able to play for him, that really touched me,” Yeguete said.

He missed six games, actually returned a week early and was on the floor when the Gators won the SEC regular-season title and advanced to a third straight Elite Eight, where he was UF’s best player (13 points on 5-for-5 shooting, plus seven rebounds) in a blowout loss to Michigan.

But as well as Yeguete played in that game, he returned home knowing that he still faced that micro-fracture surgery -- and worse, the grueling rehab that followed.

“What people don’t realize is he got that first surgery, the scope, for his team,” Werner said. “He wanted to be there and play with his teammates.”

Yeguete underwent the micro procedure in May. The rehab, in the words of strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene, was basically “like rebooting your computer.” The joint had to be completely shut down and restarted again.

Greene dubbed the comeback workouts, “Kill Will, Volumes 4, 5 and 6.”

The exaggeration was only slight.

"Not fun," Yeguete said.

Will posting up He was a workout warrior all summer, but still had doubts along the way. He could not play pick-up basketball with his teammates, or even run on a treadmill, so it was difficult for him to gauge progress.

“He was striving to be positive and looking to God for guidance and understanding as to why this was happening to him, trying not to be down,” Young said. “We were all in his ear trying to encourage him and I think we did a good job, the team and coaching staff, but that was a tough place for him.”

The UF coaching staff spent the summer planning on Yeguete missing the start of the regular season. Donovan was hoping he’d have Yeguete in time for SEC play.

But, there he was for Game 1, playing the power forward spot that in UF’s system is as demanding as the point guard position, with all its nuances on offense, defense and especially at the top of the press. Yeguete has been there since, averaging 5.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and a healthy dose of hustle and heads-up plays per game. The coaching staff's midseason report card of individual defensive players graded Yeguete out third-highest on the team, behind Wilbekin and Young.

“I’ve seen him at such low points and he always rises to the occasion of coming back for his team,” Werner said. “It’s such a testament to his unselfishness and how much this all means to him.”

Make no mistake, the Gators would not be the same without him. 

“I just think the guy takes pleasure in playing the game and affecting what’s going on out on the court,” Pelphrey said. “The stat sheet doesn’t reveal his importance, but we still want Will Yeguete for 25 minutes a night, if we can get it.”

Yeguete will give his team that.

He’ll give everything he has and the Gators will be all the better for it.

 

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