GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Florida lost Will Yeguete to a broken foot in late February, Billy Donovan knew his team was going to have to undergo a makeover.
Guards Bradley Beal, Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin would have to spend time at power forward to make up for the loss of the Gators’ best rebounder and post defender. UF wouldn’t be as big inside or rebound as well as when the 6-foot-7 Yeguete was on the floor, but using a four-guard lineup would put more 3-point shooters on the floor and allow the Gators to play more in transition.
But reshaping his team’s identity wasn’t going to be that simple. There was so much else for Donovan to consider:
" How would center Patric Young handle playing without his best friend and roommate?
" How do you avoid becoming predictable offensively when there are four guards and forward Erik Murphy – who at 6-10 is UF’s best 3-point shooter (43.1 percent) – on the floor?
" And, perhaps most importantly, how do the players respond mentally to the challenge of having to do it all during the final weeks of the regular season and into the post-season?
"There was a lot of dynamics that went on," Donovan said. "I think sometimes through an injury like that guys get a chance to understand how valuable another player is.
"So I just think it took us some time to work through those things when Yeguete went down."
It took about a month, but the Gators (25-10) have apparently figured it out. They blistered Virginia and Norfolk State in the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament and are in the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in Donovan’s 18 seasons at UF. The Gators outscored the Cavaliers and Spartans by a combined 60 points and out-rebounded them by a combined 33 rebounds.
Those two games followed a three-point loss to top-ranked Kentucky in a Southeastern Conference tournament semifinal, which is when Donovan finally felt like the Gators had begun figuring out how to play without Yeguete (4.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg), who hasn’t played since he suffered the broken foot against Auburn on Feb. 21. Donovan started to see signs after back-to-back losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt in the seven days after Yeguete’s injury.
"I think as time went on, our guys started to see different things they needed to do -- not to be Will Yeguete, but certainly to make up for some of the things that were missing when he got hurt," Donovan said. "I felt like we were playing better after the Georgia game but the result wasn’t winning. But I felt like we were getting better at the things we were trying to do."
The easiest task was Young adjusting to playing without Yeguete -- something Donovan likened to Al Horford playing without Joakim Noah. But getting the 6-3 Beal, the 6-6 Prather and the 6-2 Wilbekin to a point where they felt comfortable playing some power forward took a while. It was an easier adjustment physically for Beal, who is the team’s leading rebounder anyway (6.7 per game), but all three had to learn the defensive rotations and responsibilities of playing power forward.
That also meant more consistent playing time for reserve guard Mike Rosario and forward Cody Larson. Rosario is eating up some of the minutes the guards lost to playing power forward. Larson has played a combined 30 minutes in the last four games.
Prather and Rosario turned in surprising offensive performances in the NCAA tourney. Prather scored 14 points and grabbed four rebounds against Virginia. Rosario’s 12 points against Norfolk State were the most he’s had since he scored 12 against Jacksonville University on Nov. 25, 2011.
"It’s been different for them," Donovan said. "They’ve all gone through their own little issues that they have all had to battle through."
What took the most time was getting the players to understand how to avoid becoming predictable on offense. With four guards on the floor, it’s easy for the offense to become locked in on 3-pointers, but that would be making things easier for the defense. The Gators have done a good job avoiding that by driving to the basket. Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Beal have been particularly effective doing that the past two games, and it has opened things up offensively.
"You want to be able to put defenses in a dilemma where you’re not easy to guard," Donovan said. "So the first thing was, what do we need to tweak here offensively to kind of create things that present some problems offensively for people and we’re not easy to guard? So we had to make some adjustments and take some different things out of our [screening] actions and add some different things.
"We’ve been able to kind of maybe do some of those things where it’s opened up some things for us to drive the ball, penetrate, [and] kick [the ball out to open shooters]."
Playing without Yeguete has been a learning process – but it’s one that has the Gators knocking on the door to the Final Four.