Kevarrius Hayes

Forward Kevarrius Hayes stepped up on defense the last time the Gators played in Athens against Yante Maten and the Georgia Bulldogs. Maten currently leads the SEC in scoring. 

Nate Bustamante / Alligator Staff

Georgia forward Yante Maten posted up and overpowered then-Florida forward Justin Leon, rising up for a point-blank, uncontested layup.

UF center Kevarrius Hayes then stepped toward the basket and swatted Maten’s layup out of bounds.

The block took place early in the second half of last season’s 72-60 Gators win on Feb. 7. When No. 23 Florida (15-6, 6-2 SEC) returns to Stegeman Coliseum on Tuesday night at 7 to take on the Bulldogs (12-8, 3-5 SEC) once again, UF will look to make more defensive stops.

The 6-foot-8, 240-pound Maten, who leads the SEC in scoring (19.6 points per game) and is second in rebounding (9.2 per game), presents another highly physical matchup for the Gators’ shorthanded frontcourt.

“We’ve got some bruisers in this league,” Florida coach Mike White said.

With center John Egbunu and forwards Chase Johnson and Isaiah Stokes still out with injuries — Egbunu and Stokes haven’t stepped on the court this year — Hayes and forward Keith Stone will be tasked with slowing down Maten.

Having played undersized for most of the season, Hayes said that he, Stone and the rest of the team have begun to settle in, although smaller lineups still hamper Florida’s defense.

“We’re not consistently great at anything defensively,” White said. “We’re just not.”

Consistency has been an issue for the Gators this year. A game after snagging a rare win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena, Florida came unraveled in the second half of a 77-72 loss to South Carolina on Wednesday at the O’Connell Center. Three days later, the Gators wowed the home crowd with an 81-60 win over Baylor as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

However, White said the win over the Bears has nothing to do with Tuesday’s matchup with the Bulldogs.

“Every time we’ve gone to Georgia, every time Georgia has come here, it’s a dogfight with the ‘Dogs,” White said.

Georgia’s best weapon is its defense, which ranks 41st (out of 351 Division I teams) in scoring defense.

The Bulldogs’ 66.1 points allowed per game is third in the SEC, and their 40.0 rebounds per game trails just Texas A&M (42.3) but is well ahead of the Gators, who are near the bottom of the conference in team rebounds with 36.1 per game.

Florida has found some unlikely help in the rebounding department with graduate transfer Egor Koulechov. Koulechov is nicknamed “Three-Gor” because of his shooting ability, but the 6-foot-5 Russian native has contributed inside as well during his only season with UF.

Koulechov leads Florida with 7.2 rebounds per game, which ranks fifth in the SEC and is the most by an SEC guard. Koulechov’s role in the Gators’ guard-heavy rotation is partially defined by his work on the boards, which frees up senior Chris Chiozza (6-foot) and junior KeVaughn Allen (6-foot-2), while 6-foot-6 junior Jalen Hudson mostly plays from the outside in.

Koulechov doesn’t mind doing ‘dirty work’ for the Gators. Just ask Hayes.

“I think (Koulechov) has great positioning,” Hayes said. “We always have a little joke. As long as I get blocks, he says he gets the rebounds.”

Chiozza, who despite his stature pulls down the third-most boards for UF, is coming off one of his most complete games this year. The senior scored 20 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out six assists against the Bears. Chiozza’s 6.1 assists per game this season leads the SEC, and he’s averaged 7.8 per game over the last four contests while turning the ball over just four times.

“How dare he turn that thing over?” White joked, referring to Chiozza’s single turnover against Baylor.

Florida’s 10.1 giveaways per game is best in the SEC and ranks in the NCAA’s top 10 this season, thanks in large part to Chiozza’s performance as the Gators’ floor general.

“You’ve gotta feel very, very comfortable, (with the ball in Chiozza’s hands)” White said. “It’s a luxury.”

Follow Andrew Huang on Twitter @AndrewJHuang and contact him at [email protected].

Andrew Huang is a sports writer for the Alligator and covers the UF men's basketball team. He has previously covered UF volleyball, UF swimming and UF track and field. He has worked at the paper since Spring 2017.