Egbunu

Many Florida fans remember the 2016-2017 men’s basketball season for three reasons: Chris Chiozza’s game-winner against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, Canyon Barry’s underhanded free throws and the opening of a renovated O’Connell Center.

The passionate fans, though, still dream about what could’ve been if center John Egbunu never suffered a torn ACL against Auburn on Feb. 14.

Despite his absence, Florida was able to muster together an NCAA Tournament run that lasted until the Elite Eight where it fell to South Carolina 77-70.

But, what if Egbunu never got injured?

If he never gets hurt, I believe the Gators make their sixth Final Four in program’s history.

The 6-foot-11 center from Nigeria was irreplaceable and a key piece for them to become legitimate Final Four contenders. He was never a player who could consistently score double digits during his collegiate career, averaging only 7.8 points per game.

But he made his presence known as a leader and on the defensive end, blocking 1.5 shots and grabbing 6.6 rebounds per game.

After his injury, many college basketball analysts wrote Florida off because it lacked a rim protector and a low-post presence, labeling UF as a popular upset pick heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Following its exit from the Big Dance, many Gators fans thought Egbunu was the missing piece that could’ve led them to a Final Four.

Before he went down, I thought coach Mike White’s squad had the talent to compete for an SEC championship and make a serious run in March Madness because they had all the key components a Final Four contender needed. UF had an elite defense paired with a solid offense. It was ranked 25th in offensive efficiency, fifth in defensive efficiency and fifth overall, according to KenPom. And, the Gators were ranked in the top 25 of the AP poll for most of the season.

Another key factor that determines success in the NCAA tournament is strong guard play and a rim protector.

White’s team also had four solid guards who he could count on in Kasey Hill, Kevaughn Allen, Barry and Chiozza.

Allen and Barry were White’s best guards and led the team in scoring at 14 and 11.4 ppg.

The Gators were also so deep in the backcourt that Chiozza, who became the program’s all-time assist leader the next season, had to be brought in off the bench.

At center, the Gators had Egbunu and his replacement, Kevarrius Hayes, to guard the paint.

Filling in for Egbunu, Hayes averaged more blocks than Egbunu but was unable to score as much as his predecessor.

If Egbunu never got injured, I believe Florida has another Final Four banner hanging in the O’Dome rafters because he was the missing link that made UF a complete team.

Then, if White reaches a Final Four in his second season, I think Florida’s fanbase would be more confident in the direction he is leading the program.

Follow Zachary on Twitter @zacharyahuber and contact him at [email protected].

Zachary Huber covers men's tennis for the Alligator. This is his first semester working for The Alligator. He's a junior studying journalism at UF.