When Will Yeguete got hurt in February, in a game Florida cruised to an easy victory in, I was shattered for him, for the Gators, and for myself.
No Gator since the days of Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer had played harder than Yeguete did this season, flying around on defense and attacking the boards like a belligerent kangaroo, and he was the heart and soul of a team that seemed to lack fire at times. I was really worried that Florida would limp home without him, given the Gators' shortage of bigger defenders and tendency to flinch against rougher circumstances.
They did that, losing their next three games, and four of their next five, and giving up 74 or more points in all four losses. But since then, the Gators have refocused, and become a different team.
And they've done it by mimicking Yeguete's will to win.
Yahoo!'s Jeff Eisenberg has the thumbnail sketch:
When Florida coach Billy Donovan addressed his team for the first time after sophomore forward Will Yeguete broke his foot in late February, he began by issuing the Gators a challenge.
First, Donovan listed Yeguete’s best qualities on a whiteboard: "Energy, defense, hard work, rebounding and good attitude."
Then he asked his players if any of them were incapable of bringing those things to the team.
"He told us with Will out, each guy needed to bring those things a little bit more," center Patric Young said. "He said, straight up, 'This guy is probably done for the season. There are no excuses. This guy can’t play, so everybody needs to pick it up.'"
Florida’s subsequent transformation into a formidable defensive team was more gradual than instantaneous, but the Gators undeniably have become a stingier team in the absence of their best defender.
It sounds good as a story, but it's been even better on the court. Florida went from allowing no fewer than 1.099 points per possession in those five post-Yeguete, pre-Tournament games — the sort of horrific numbers that will earn even the most offensively gifted teams losses — to allowing no more than .861 points per possession in the NCAA Tournament.
The Gators' two games last weekend were their best on defense on a PPP basis in 2011-12 (.710 PPP allowed to Virginia, and .763 PPP to Norfolk State; Florida's previous best was .770 against Mississippi Valley State), but they came against foes with far less talent and offensive proficiency. The .861 PPP Florida allowed to Marquette, on the other hand, probably qualifies as the best performance of the season, considering context: The Golden Eagles had a very good offense, anchored by Jae Crowder, one of the nation's most efficient players, and all sorts of size mismatches for the Gators' backcourt.
Those things didn't matter, as the Gators frustrated Marquette into bad shots and chippy play, and it's tempting to say that it also doesn't matter how relatively unimpressive the teams Florida has played in its run to the Elite Eight have been, because the Gators are finally doing the things they have needed to do all year to defend better. They close out on threes, one of the most dire problems all year (Florida's a pedestrian 160th nationally in three-point field goal defense), and they position themselves well for rebounds, and they defend tenaciously but smartly, cutting down on the fouling that became a huge problem immediately after Yeguete's absence.
Losing Yeguete did matter, though, because if Yeguete had remained healthy, Florida would likely have relied on him to do all those things. He's great at them — Florida's best defender by some margin, as The Alligator's Greg Luca demonstrated — but was often the only Gator doing them every trip. Losing Yeguete gave Donovan a chance to challenge his charges to do what their most indefatigable comrade does, and see what happened if they did. They have done the former, and we can all see the latter results: Three straight double-digit wins on the way to an Elite Eight showdown with Louisville.
Yeguete's injury left a gaping hole in the heart of Florida's defense. The Gators have filled it by leaving more on the floor every night. They may not have their Will on the floor, but there's certainly plenty of will.