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Florida’s Kevarrius Hayes has shined in John Egbunu’s absence before

The Gators’ backup big man has starred in unexpected spotlight.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators lost arguably their most talented player on Tuesday night, when John Egbunu suffered a torn ACL that will keep him out for the rest of the season, and off the floor for much of the next year, in all likelihood.

Egbunu looks like one of the finest basketball players in the world stepping off the bus, with muscle comprising much of the 255 pounds packed onto his imposing 6’11” frame. And, occasionally, he’s capable of looking unstoppable on the court, as his leaping ability and power underneath the hoop have led to thunderous dunks and resounding blocks over his two years in a Gators uniform.

Those highlights, though, are snapshots of the best Egbunu can do — and taking them along with his rudimentary set of post moves, lack of a jumper, poor shooting from the foul line, and often too-aggressive defense provides a holistic picture of a more uneven basketball player.

Advanced statistics, too, are not particularly kind to Egbunu. While he has improved on his debut season with Florida as both an offensive and defensive rebounder as a redshirt junior, his shooting percentage is down more than 10 percent, from a sparkling 59.1 percent to just 48.8 percent, and he has improved his free-throw shooting and block percentage only marginally, while also committing more turnovers. Perhaps most damning is Egbunu’s Offensive Rating — a measure of personal efficiency — of 97.7, second-worst to the notoriously poor-shooting and turnover-prone Kasey Hill among major Gators contributors, and down from a 106.2 mark as a redshirt sophomore.

Egbunu occupies an outsized space in Florida fans’ imagination of this Gators team, both as a hulking, impossibly athletic center prone to making spectacular and as someone who was viewed as a potentially great addition as a transfer. That will magnify the perceived impact of his loss, undoubtedly.

But, well: Kevarrius Hayes has arguably been better than Egbunu this year, and inarguably shined when asked to occupy Egbunu’s role before.

The latter is easier to explain. Egbunu has missed four games in full as a Gator, two in the 2016 Postseason NIT due to a thumb injury that required surgery and two in December 2016 while dealing with a nagging hamstring injury. Hayes has averaged 12.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in those four games, and Florida is 3-1 in them, losing only to eventual 2016 NIT champion George Washington on the Colonials’ home floor.

Hayes also posted sky-high Offensive Ratings — 204, 185, 149, and 192 — in those games, suggesting that Florida’s offense worked very, very well while he was on the court; that assumption is backed up by the Gators scoring at least 1.10 points per possession in each of those four contests.

Partly due to his success against Charlotte and Little Rock as a starter in Egbunu’s stead, Hayes remained a starter for Florida’s next five games this season — and that coincided with a 5-0 start in SEC play in which Hayes never played more than 22 minutes and never posted an Offensive Rating under 120. Egbunu was reinserted as a starter after that seven-game winning streak ... and it promptly ended, with Egbunu’s first two games back as a starter doubling as Florida’s only losses of 2017 so far.

That’s more or less circumstantial evidence, gleaned from a small sample size, but it does seem to suggest that Hayes taking a bigger role has not hurt Florida much, if at all — both with and without Egbunu around.

And the larger sample size — the full 2016-17 season — makes a compelling case that Hayes has simply given Florida more than Egbunu has this year.

Hayes’s Offensive Rating of 130.2 doesn’t just dwarf Egbunu’s — it’s the best by any Gator playing more than 10 minutes per game, an impressive feat given that Canyon Barry, Devin Robinson, and KeVaughn Allen are all among the nation’s top 100 in the statistic among players using at least 20 percent of possessions. (Little-used Eric Hester’s 155.2 would be the nation’s best Offensive Rating, but he is far from qualified in terms of usage.)

That rating has a lot to do with Hayes scoring a significant share of his points on rim-runs in transition, dunks earned on offensive boards, and alley-oops, rather than an explosive offensive game that he does not have. But it’s a fantastic rating regardless of how it has been recorded. As a point of comparison, UCLA’s T.J. Leaf, a prodigiously talented big man with a sweet shot and a sweeter role in a majestic offense, leads the nation in Offensive Rating among players using at least a fifth of their teams’ possessions — and his Offensive Rating of 131.7 is only marginally better than the one Hayes boasts.

Hayes is also a better shot-blocker, in terms of efficiency, than Egbunu: Despite giving up at least a couple inches of height and perhaps a few more of vertical leap to his teammate, Hayes tends to take better position against shooters in the post, and does not leave his feet on quixotic attempts to make highlight-reel plays nearly as often. Egbunu’s Block Percentage of 6.8 percent (of possessions on the floor on which he records a block) is very good, and ranks No. 89 nationally among qualified players — but Hayes is at a stunning 10.3 percent, which would be a top-25 mark if he were qualified for a national ranking.

The further down the list of stats one goes, the more the numbers favor Hayes. He’s a better free-throw shooter, turns the ball over less often, steals the ball more, and is much, much more efficient from the field: Hayes has 56 two-pointers this year, not far from Egbunu’s tally of 63, despite Egbunu playing 134 more minutes — more than three whole games — and taking 41 more shots inside the arc.

In fact, it’s kind of hard to find areas in which Egbunu has been definitively better than Hayes over the course of this season.

Egbunu is a better rebounder, if not dramatically so, but Hayes is also far more likely to turn and run in transition when a teammate grabs a rebound than Egbunu is, making up for some of that deficit. Hayes commits fouls more often — something he will likely have to adjust his game to avoid as Florida’s primary post player — but neither he nor Egbunu is even good at defending cleanly. In the least useful comparison possible, Egbunu has made a three, and Hayes has not.

Taking the evidence of this season holistically, however, it’s very, very hard for me to argue that Egbunu has been better than Hayes. Maybe the best arguments for that contention — that Egbunu plays against other teams’ best players, softening them up and drawing fouls that allow Hayes to play better in his stead, or that him playing in concert with Hayes enables Hayes to do more — are easily undermined, by pointing to Hayes excelling without Egbunu around, or the fact that the two bigs have very rarely played together.

But that also doesn’t matter anymore, because Mike White doesn’t have a choice between Egbunu and Hayes for the rest of this season. And while Hayes being White’s best option in the post has not hurt the Gators — and, in fact, has probably helped them — yet, that doesn’t mean that it will not, especially because we haven’t seen a game in which Hayes finding foul trouble has forced the deployment of Schuyler Rimmer and/or Gorjok Gak for starter’s minutes.

The theory that Hayes has been better than Egbunu has a lot of evidence to back it; the theory that Hayes alone — or with whatever contributions Rimmer and Gak can make — is better than Hayes and Egbunu is much harder to support, its best evidence from a small sample size.

And yet there is ample evidence for optimism.

Florida’s misfortune to lose Egbunu to injury might yet sideswipe what has been a fantastic season for the Gators. We don’t know for certain where this team will go from here, and won’t until these Gators get to whatever that destination is.

I find forecasting major bumps after losing John Egbunu and elevating Kevarrius Hayes difficult to do, though — and so I’m more ready for this ride than I suspect some are.