The holiday break came at a good time for Florida junior center Kevarrius Hayes.
A chance to rest physically. A chance to clear his mind after an up-and-down start to the 2017-18 season.
The 6-foot-9, 225-pound Hayes took some confidence into the break after posting season highs in points (8) and rebounds (8) in UF’s 75-60 win over Incarnate Word on Dec. 22. But Hayes has endured a rocky junior campaign so far, which has included being in-and-out of the starting lineup since being suspended for a violation of team rules on Thanksgiving Night against Stanford at the PK80 Tournament in Portland, Ore.
Hayes said he feels like he’s been playing harder since the suspension, but it hasn’t translated in terms of on-court production. In 11 games (six starts), Hayes is averaging 4.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
“It’s come down to focus,” Hayes said. “For me really, it’s just how much do I really value this, how much do I really enjoy playing.”
The Gators are hoping their most experienced healthy big man can start to turn his season around when Florida opens SEC play on Saturday against Vanderbilt. Hayes was projected to take another step forward after a solid sophomore season that ended with the former Live Oak High standout starting at center in place of injured big man John Egbunu. Instead, Hayes has been unable to deliver scoring in the paint and has been inconsistent in providing the same defensive energy and intensity he brought last season.
Hayes would not disclose the reason for his early-season suspension, but said it was a wake-up call. It was an uncharacteristic misstep for Hayes, a former Live Oak High class president who also has represented Florida in SEC student leadership council meetings.
“I did hit a little valley,” Hayes said. “But it was a low point everybody hits once in a while just to see where your priorities are.”
On the court, Hayes has been forced to take on more battles inside. Often, Florida coach Mike White has used more three and four-guard lineups to get his most talented players on the floor. Last season, Hayes had more size and toughness around him with 6-8 forwards Justin Leon and Devin Robinson starting across the front line. This season, Hayes has been more on an island.
“It does feel like there’s a little pressure, gotta be active on the boards, get more rebounds and be a bigger rim protector,” Hayes said. “I’m probably one of the few shot blockers we do have.”
Often, though, Hayes’ zeal to leave his feet to block shots has left him prone to foul trouble and out of rebounding position. Against Incarnate Word, Hayes appeared poised for a breakout game with 8 points and 7 rebounds in the first half. But early in the second half, Hayes left his feet going for a shot block and fouled on an eventual three-point play by Incarnate Word forward Charles Brown III. White immediately pulled Hayes, who played just three of his 17 minutes in the second half.
With the 6-foot-11, 265 pound Egbunu not expected back until late January while rehabbing a torn ACL, Hayes and redshirt sophomore forward Keith Stone are going to need to raise their level of play in the early portion of the conference schedule.
“It’s going to be huge for us,” Hayes said. “John is a big factor, it’s like, we’ve been trying to make up for that ever since he’s been hurt. I feel like we’ve just got to keep pressing, the same that we did last year.”