UK Men's Basketball

Loss of ‘girth guy’ does not reduce threat Florida poses for Kentucky

Florida center John Egbunu (15) has been lost for the season with a torn ACL. Egbunu had eight points and seven rebounds in the Gators’ win over Kentucky on Feb. 4.
Florida center John Egbunu (15) has been lost for the season with a torn ACL. Egbunu had eight points and seven rebounds in the Gators’ win over Kentucky on Feb. 4. AP

Torn anterior cruciate ligament fells the team’s most physical presence. Injury removes the anchor of the defense, which is the foundational component of the team. Team loses its equilibrium. Defeats ensue.

That’s a plausible scenario for Florida, which lost center John Egbunu to a torn ACL on Feb. 14. But that’s not the Florida playing at Kentucky on Saturday with first place in the Southeastern Conference at stake.

“I think the same Florida that Kentucky fans saw in Gainesville is the same Florida they’re going to see this weekend,” ESPN analyst Sean Farnham said Thursday.

The Florida in Gainesville beat Kentucky 88-66, the second-largest margin of defeat in John Calipari’s eight seasons as UK coach.

The Florida since Egbunu’s injury has won three wildly different games: 114-95 at Auburn (Egbunu played eight minutes before his season-ending injury), 57-52 at Mississippi State and then 81-66 over South Carolina).

“The ability to play at two speeds,” Farnham said of the victories over Auburn and Mississippi State. “The ability to have games you struggle offensively, and still find a way to win. That’s what Florida has done all season long.”

Florida, which has the same records as UK: 23-5 overall, 13-2 in the SEC, has won with defense. The Gators went into this week’s Southeastern Conference play ranked first in points allowed (66.6 ppg), field goal defense (opponents shooting 40.8 percent) and three-point defense (29.5 percent).

Coach Mike White spoke immediately of defense when asked what Egbunu contributed to the team.

“I think John was one of the better defenders in our league,” White said Monday. “That’s been our strength all year. Our defensive numbers have been really good. John has blocked a bunch of shots (and) altered a bunch of shots. He’s got a unique ability to really move his feet. He communicates really well in that role as our anchor defensively.”

Egbunu, a 6-foot-11, 255-pound redshirt junior from Nigeria, was averaging 7.8 points and a team-leading 6.6 rebounds.

“He was our girth guy,” White said. “We don’t have a lot of girth. He was it.”

Instead of girth, Florida has depth. The Gators’ current nine-game winning streak has seen seven different players lead the team in scoring.

Kevarrius Hayes, a 6-9, 218-pound sophomore, gives Florida production at center. He averaged eight points and eight rebounds in the victories over Mississippi State and South Carolina. He had three steals against the Gamecocks and blocked four shots against State.

“He was tremendous,” White said of Hayes’ play at State, “and he played so hard.”

After the victory at Mississippi State, Hayes downplayed having to replace Egbunu. “I tried not to make a big deal out of it,” he said.

Farnham envisioned how Florida could miss Egbunu on offense.

“If things get tight Saturday in Lexington, it’s going to have to be predicated on their guard play,” he said of Florida’s fate. “They can’t just post up Hayes and dump it to him like they could with John Egbunu, and try to manufacture two points or a foul and go to the foul line.”

Farnham, who worked the ESPN telecast of Florida’s victory over South Carolina on Tuesday, saw the Gators flex their depth. The victory came despite Egbunu being sidelined and second-leading scorer Canyon Barry (12.7 ppg) reduced to nine scoreless minutes because of a turned ankle.

“And they cruise to victory over one of the better defensive teams in the country,” Farnham said.

Depth at center might become an issue. Hayes’ backup is Schuyler Rimmer, who averages 1.4 points and 1.0 rebounds.

White acknowledged that the timing of Egbunu’s injury made a radical change to Florida’s approach all but impossible.

“This time of year, you don’t have time to really even have a long practice to focus in as much on the next opponent as you’d like,” the Florida coach said, “let alone change what you’re doing. . . . There’s just no time.”

White spoke of “subtle changes.”

Farnham saw Florida’s guards turning greater attention to rebounding. Against South Carolina, leading scorer KeVaughn Allen grabbed four of the first six available rebounds.

“He only ended up with seven,” Farnham said, “but he set the tone early of where we’re circling back as guards to get the rebound. We’re not leaking out. We’re not looking for run-outs.”

Farnham voiced skepticism that Florida would want to make major changes in its steady-as-she-goes approach had a season-ending injury occurred in, say, October or November.

For instance, South Carolina used a 17-2 run to take the lead late in the first half Tuesday.

“Florida didn’t panic,” Farnham said. “Came right back. Regained the lead before the break, and never looked back. That’s a business-like approach. An immature team, a young team, they can struggle in a situation where the opponent goes on a 17-2 run.

“All of a sudden, a 17-2 run marks the end of the game. For Florida, it’s not marking the end of the game. It’s marking the beginning of a new challenge.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Next game

No. 13 Florida at No. 11 Kentucky

2 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)

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