AUSTIN, Texas — The knee still aches. Some days the pain is greater than others. It needs TLC every time Will Yeguete finishes a tough practice or rehab session.
As Yeguete sat at his locker here inside the Frank Erwin Center on Thursday afternoon, a bag of ice was taped to his right knee, the one that forced Yeguete to miss a month of the regular season and threatened to end his season.
The thought of not playing in the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row is one Yeguete, a junior forward, is glad he no longer has to consider. The possibility burdened him at midseason.
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“I mean he really cried about as hard as a kid I’ve seen cry before,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He wanted to play.”
Yeguete did not play in Florida’s run to the Elite Eight last year due to a broken foot. As a freshman in 2011, Yeguete played only 20 minutes in three March Madness games.
The Gators, the No. 3 seed in the South Region, are back in the tournament and face No. 14-seed Northwestern State on Friday night. Yeguete is ready to go.
“The fact I had a chance to come back, that was what was pushing me and driving me every day,” Yeguete said. “This year is different [for me]. It’s exciting because I’m going to have a chance to play.”
Following an arthroscopic procedure to clear loose particles from his knee, Yeguete missed six games before returning to the court March 2 against Alabama. His return has been slow. He played 11 minutes in his first game back, 12 in the next.
His most extended playing time since coming back was 21 minutes in Friday’s win over LSU in the SEC Tournament. His best game was probably a six-point, six-rebound performance in Florida’s SEC Tournament semifinal win over Alabama on Saturday.
Yeguete’s return to form might not be moving like a runaway train, but it has picked up from a snail’s pace.
“Athletically, dunking-wise, I don’t think he is there,” said teammate Kenny Boynton said. “Rebounding, being there on defense, his intensity, is getting back. Will is going to get back to his self and when he gets to 100 percent, we’ll know, because he is going to change the game.”
When the 6-foot-7, 222-pound Yeguete is in top form, he provides the Gators with a tough defender, strong rebounder and all-out hustle on every play. Yeguete is what coaches refer to admirably as a “glue guy,” a player willing to do whatever it takes to benefit the team.
Donovan said it is obvious Yeguete is not 100 percent but he is glad to have him back in the rotation nonetheless.
“I think a lot of times when somebody’s cleared to play after injury, the normal response is he’s going to be exactly like he was before he got hurt,” Donovan said. “Usually a guy that’s been out for a month, that’s never the case.
“He’s much better than he was going back to our Alabama and Vanderbilt games. I think he can get there. We’ll need that in a hurry. Having him out there is certainly much better than having him sitting on the sidelines on crutches.”
Yeguete said Friday that he is playing without a piece of cartilage in the knee that will have to be repaired one day. He doesn’t know if the surgery will happen after the season or after his UF career, but he knows at some point he faces a more serious surgery.
But right now he is focused on playing a significant role for the Gators.
“I’m feeling better every time I step on the court,” Yeguete said. “I do a lot of rehab off the court and just take care of my knee. I feel good.”
Part of that care means ice, massages, more stretching, and rest when he can get it.
Yeguete has shown his willingness to do whatever it takes to improve as a player. He is averaging 5.4 points and 5.8 rebounds in 27 games.
“Will was like a stick figure when he first got here,” teammate Patric Young said. “He has gained a lot of weight and got a lot stronger, but he still does all the little things that he does on defense and offense that he is capable of doing.”
And Yeguete gets to do those things in the NCAA Tournament. The knee still aches, but not enough to keep him away from this opportunity or to bring tears.
“I’m happy he can play and experience this,” Donovan said.