PHOENIX — For much of the season, reserve forward Will Yeguete was the key to Florida’s full-court press, its best interior defender and their most prodigious rebounder. But Yeguete has a broken left foot and is out for the rest of the season.
Over four weeks, the Gators have adjusted. The seventh-seeded squad that will take on third-seeded Marquette on Thursday in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 will be a more guard-oriented, tough-minded group than the one that existed a month ago. As assistant coach John Pelphrey puts it, they have learned to use their opponents’ strength against them.
“Defensively, we’ve done a good job,” Pelphrey said. “We’ve been able to rebound the ball with these two teams. We’ve been able to handle the other team’s best player and kind of cut off their right arm and make them play left-handed.”
Such a major change did not come easily. When Yeguete suffered his broken foot during Florida’s 63-47 win Feb. 21 against Auburn, Pelphrey said, “it was overwhelming.”
To that point, Yeguete had been the team’s most versatile player. He could defend every position except the opposing center. At 6 feet 7, he offered size, length and agility to Florida’s press. He was the team’s leading rebounder.
Ten days before his foot injury, Yeguete had suffered a mild concussion less than two minutes into Florida’s home game against Tennessee and did not return. “We had no chance — no chance — of winning that ballgame,” Pelphrey said. “Our guys competed hard, but we weren’t going to be able to beat those guys without him.” The Gators lost, 75-70.
Following the Auburn game, Florida’s coaches harbored similar concerns, but they felt the team’s final three regular season games would offer them a blueprint on how to survive during the postseason. The Gators went 0-3 in that stretch, but they learned the keys for them would be to drive to the basket more often, implement their full-court press less often but more intensely and ask more from their guards.
“We had to come to a conclusion that, ‘Okay, we don’t have Will the rest of the season so a lot of guys that are playing certain positions and doing certain things are going to have to sacrifice,’ ” reserve guard Mike Rosario said. “We had to make a couple of adjustments with the team.”
Reserve swingman Casey Prather has taken on Yeguete’s role at the top of Florida’s press. The heavier reliance on four-guard looks at times has translated to less post touches for center Patric Young. Guards Bradley Beal and Kenny Boynton have been asked to focus more on rebounding and less on looking to get open.
“After Will got hurt, we just started paying attention to more details because he added a lot of intangible things,” Prather said. “He could take care of more rebounding and more loose balls and more hustle plays.”
Florida entered the NCAA tournament having lost six of its previous 10 games. But now, the Gators (25-10) feel confident heading into their matchup against a physical, up-tempo Marquette squad because they have proven to themselves that they can thrive.
Combined, Florida’s two NCAA tournament foes thus far, Virginia and Norfolk State, have averaged less than three-quarters of a point per possession. The Gators blasted the Cavaliers, 71-45, and the Spartans, 84-50.
“We’re playing our best basketball because of all the things we’ve been through throughout the course of this season,” Pelphrey said. “We’ve been able to focus and concentrate with an understanding we’re missing our best, toughest guy and that if we don’t do something to overcome his absence, then we won’t be around for very long.”