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Florida’s John Egbunu out for season with torn ACL

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The Gators’ big man is projected to miss up to a year.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Gators center John Egbunu suffered a torn ACL in his left knee at Auburn on Tuesday night and will miss the rest of the season, Florida announced Wednesday.

Egbunu suffered the injury midway through the first half while attempting to rebound, and had to be helped to the sideline. He was initially listed as questionable to return, then ruled out before the beginning of the second half.

An MRI on Wednesday revealed the extent of the damage, which leaves Egbunu with a projected recovery of 10 to 12 months.

"We're all disappointed for John," head coach Mike White said. "He's been playing really well of late, so it's a tough blow to him and our team. He's a great young man, and unfortunately injuries are a part of basketball. He'll be back even stronger."

Egbunu had stepped up his game in recent weeks — in days, really, given that he had his first double-double of the season against Texas A&M on Saturday, and left Tuesday’s game with 10 points in just eight minutes of action. He also ends his season as Florida’s current leading rebounder, at 6.6 rebounds per game, and within the nation’s top 100 in individual offensive rebounding percentage and block percentage.

But Egbunu’s been capably backed up by Kevarrius Hayes, whose block percentage would be within the nation’s top 20 if he had played enough minutes to qualify for a national ranking, and whose four games of double-digit scoring on the season are just two fewer than Egbunu recorded, despite Hayes playing almost seven fewer minutes per game on average.

And when Egbunu has been out — with a hamstring injury in late December, and during much of Florida’s 2016 NIT run — Florida has generally flourished. This year’s Gators did so by defeating — admittedly overmatched — Charlotte and Little Rock teams by an average of 31 points, with Hayes averaging 10.5 points and 6.5 rebounds over those two games; last year’s Gators went 1-1 on the road in the NIT sans Egbunu, with Hayes scoring 14 points in each game.

It may be fashionable to downgrade Florida’s chances of making good on its molten run of play in recent weeks without Egbunu, but that smallish sample size suggests that Hayes might be a more than adequate replacement.

Of potentially greater concern to the Gators, especially in the short term, is the lack of depth behind Hayes. Walk-on Schuyler Rimmer and true freshman Gorjok Gak — who Florida announced is projected to be out for 10 to 14 days with a foot strain in conjunction with announcing Egbunu’s injury — are the only two centers on Florida’s roster other than Egbunu, with Hayes slotting in better as a power forward.

Without Egbunu, the Gators are likely to use Hayes at center, and ask small forwards Devin Robinson, Justin Leon, and Keith Stone to play up at the power forward position. And that may remain true even if Gak returns, as he has played very sparingly in his freshman season, and appeared overwhelmed when he has seen the court.

Egbunu’s future is also thrown into doubt by his injury. A recovery period of close to a year probably forecloses any faint hopes of jumping to the professional ranks this year, and would make Egbunu recovering in time to return to the floor in the 2017-18 season somewhat doubtful.

But Egbunu is 22, and already four years removed from his high school graduation, and has copious physical gifts that will enable him to have a professional career — if not an NBA career — if he can return to the form he has shown. It seems similarly doubtful that he might choose to sit for the entire 2017-18 season, apply for an NCAA waiver for a medical redshirt, and play with the Gators in 2018-19 — a season that will likely take place entirely after his 24th birthday.

What happened Tuesday night at Auburn, in the midst of a game that was historic for a variety of other reasons for the Gators, probably changed Egbunu’s life irrevocably, and quite possibly not for the better. No matter what happens to the Gators without him, his immense loss ought to be first in fans’ minds.