GAINESVILLE -- Will Yeguete — the hustle and heartbeat of the top-seeded Gators — is happy just to be on the court. His teammates, along with coach Billy Donovan, feel a little more strongly: They’re thankful and thrilled.
The 6-9 senior — the most unheralded member of Florida’s “Core Four’’ senior class — is a valuable “dirty-work guy,” and the forward is finally impacting NCAA Tournament games the way he had always imagined after two years of adversity.
“He's the epitome of a guy that when you look down at the stat sheet it's hard to have a level of appreciation for him,” Donovan explained. “But I've always tried to talk to Will about how much I appreciate him, because he really impacts winning. He really impacts the game in a very, very positive way for us. What he does is really, really rare.”
Yeguete actually stuffed the stat sheet — eight points, four rebounds, a block, a steal and an assist — in Florida’s win over ninth-seeded Pittsburgh last Saturday, but his importance has been much more subtle the majority of his four-year career.
The tenacious frontcourt forward, crucial to Florida’s press and switching defenses and an adept passer in its pick-and-roll offense, was all smiles after his performance against the Panthers.
He hopes to continue his solid work against fourth-seeded UCLA in Memphis on Thursday (9:45 p.m., CBS) in the Sweet 16.
“It was fun, you know, just being out there with my teammates and [contributing],” said Yeguete, appropriately wearing a Gators “Intensity Counts” T-shirt.
“It was a really good win and a great team effort against a really good team, so we need that same energy this week when we play UCLA.”
But the Big Dance has rarely been fun for the Frenchman from Bordeaux.
In 2012, Yegute missed the NCAA Tournament with a broken foot and was hobbled by a severe knee injury most of last season. The Gators sorely missed his versatility, effort and toughness, losing in the Elite Eight both times.
“You can’t put a price tag on how important this guy is to our team,” senior center Patric Young said, Yeguete’s best friend on the Gators.
“He’s invaluable. … We’re not the same without him.”
Yeguete is averaging just 4.9 points and 5.1 rebounds this season, but value isn’t measured by boxscores and statistics.
According to Donovan and senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, Yeguete’s infectious personality and team-first attitude directly contributes to winning.
“It's hard to find players like him,” Donovan said. “It's hard to find guys that really kind of hang their hat on being kind of a dirty-work guy, and it’s hard sometimes because certainly it doesn't really give them a lot of headlines. He’s not a headline guy. But he really does a lot for our team.”
Added Wilbekin, Yeguete’s former AAU teammate in high school: “He has a nose for the ball. He seems to get it when others wouldn’t. It’s just an attitude. When you have it, you don’t realize it because it just comes natural. He has it.”
Donovan signed a three-year extension through 2018-19, according to contract details released Tuesday. Donovan, in his 18th season at UF, will earn an annual salary of $3.68 million from 2014-19, roughly a $100,000-a-year raise.
Terms were reached over the summer, but the contract wasn’t completed until last month. Unlike his previous deal, Donovan no longer has a noncompete clause, but he must receive “expressed written consent” before speaking with any other teams, professional or collegiate.
• Wilbekin is “good to go” after knocking knees with a Panthers player late in UF’s win. The point guard sustained a slight knee bruise but is not expected to miss any practice time in advance of Thursday’s game.