Where there's a Will...
Published: Friday, March 1, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 at 12:04 a.m.
Florida junior forward Will Yeguete can smile about it at this point.
Pointing down toward his right knee, Yeguete showed the two dime-shaped scars, a remnant of the arthroscopic procedure he went through to remove bone chips three weeks ago.
“I feel like a kid right now,” Yeguete said. “I'm excited to get out there.”
Three weeks removed from knee surgery, the 6-foot-7 Yeguete is on track to return for Florida's critical showdown against Alabama on Saturday at the O'Connell Center. He went through a full-contact practice on Thursday, his first since undergoing surgery on Feb. 8.
For Yeguete, the motivation to return was strong, considering he missed Florida's Elite Eight run last season after suffering a broken foot in late February against Auburn. He admitted it was agonizing to watch another critical stretch of the season from the bench, but on-and-off knee problems during the course of the 2012-13 season resulted in another surgical procedure. Yeguete had pins inserted after breaking the fifth metatarsal bone in his foot last season.
“I just tried to stay positive,” Yeguete said.
Yeguete is not viewing himself as a savior, even though the Gators sorely missed his defense and rebounding ability off the bench. In the six games that Yeguete has sat out since the surgery, Florida went 4-2. The Gators were outrebounded in four of the six games, while Florida gave up an average of 57.2 points per game, above its season average of 53.5 points per game.
“I'm not putting pressure on myself,” Yeguete said. “I'm just going to go out there and just play. I'm not expecting to play, like, 30 minutes in the first game. I know they know that it's going to be a process. If I only get five or 10 minutes, I'm going to be happy with it and hopefully get better.”
The original prognosis was for Yeguete to be re-evaluated at the end of the regular season. But hard work with trainer Dave “Duke” Werner has allowed Yeguete to return to practice sooner than expected. Yeguete said he was able to begin rehabilitation “two or three days” after the surgery.
“I felt great and Duke was telling me I looked good, so I kept doing more rehab,” Yeguete said. “I guess they always told me I was ahead. I was just adding more stuff every day to see how I feel, and I felt great. So I just kept going, kept moving on.”
The only issue has been a knee brace that Yeguete admits feels restrictive.
“I feel like I'm not free, like my knee is still strapped up in something,” Yeguete said. “But if that's what I have to do and it's just the safest thing to do, I'm just going to have to play with it and get used to it. It was a little hard in the beginning, but now I'm probably starting to get used to it.”
But Yeguete said so far the brace hasn't impacted the leaping ability that has helped him average 6.3 rebounds per game this season.
“I did some different defensive slides (Wednesday) and I felt pretty good,” Yeguete said.
Florida coach Billy Donovan said he will continue to take a cautious approach with Yeguete moving forward. Donovan said that if Yeguete didn't look like himself in practice, he wouldn't hesitate holding him out Saturday, or limiting his minutes.
“If he can get back to the form he was in that's a great thing,” Donovan said. “I think sometimes you get your expectations way up and you put the kid in a bad situation. He needs to slowly get himself back.
“Hopefully he can get to that level, but he hasn't shown that yet. If we put all our eggs in one basket … I think that's a mistake.”
Overall, Florida is getting healthier at the right time. Freshman guard Michael Frazier II (concussion) also is due back for the Alabama game, though Frazier did suffer from back spasms in Thursday's practice. Junior forward Casey Prather passed all of his baseline tests for concussion symptoms after taking a blow to the head that drew blood late in UF's 64-58 loss to Tennessee.
Even Florida transfer center Damontre Harris is back for full contact practice, giving starting center Patric Young someone to battle day in and day out in practice. Harris, ineligible to play this season due to NCAA rules, has been unable to practice since undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in late October.
Through the injury issues, Florida (22-5, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) remains in position to win just its fourth outright SEC regular-season title in school history.
“We're a physically, mentally tough team,” said Florida senior forward Erik Murphy, who has played through a broken rib. “It's something that's part of coach's whole mentality that seeps into the team. I think he brings that to us, and we embrace that.”