- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 23, 2018

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Winning eight of its last nine games has Florida ranked again, back in the Top 25 poll for the first time in more than a month.

Staying there might require beating South Carolina in a rematch from last year’s Elite Eight.

The 20th-ranked Gators host the Gamecocks on Wednesday night and expect to hand their hands full trying to slow down physical forward Chris Silva, who leads the Southeastern Conference in free throws attempted (167) and made (123).

“That guy is a monster,” Florida coach Mike White said Tuesday. “He’s one of my favorite players to watch in college basketball. He’s something else. … No one plays harder in college basketball.”

The Gators (14-5, 6-1 SEC) have help on the way, just not in time to defend Silva.

Center John Egbunu is trying to work his way back from a knee injury sustained last February, but there’s no timetable for his return.

Egbunu began non-contact practice last week, but felt some soreness in his other knee Monday. White said Egbunu was “probably overcompensating, so who knows how long this process will be of acclimation for him.”

“You just never know,” White added. “I don’t think we can (say), ‘John is going to be back for this game and this is what he’s going to give us.’ I don’t think we can bank on any of that. It’s going to be some practices and evaluations, and then it’s going to be a few minutes in a game and evaluate from there.

“In all due respect to John - I’d love him to be back as much as anyone out there at 100 percent - but thinking about that right now is taking the focus off where it should be.”

Egbunu, a fifth-year senior, missed the final 10 games of last season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee at Auburn. The 6-foot-11 Nigerian averaged 7.8 points and a team-leading 6.6 rebounds in 2016-17.

Florida also continues to play without freshmen Chase Johnson (concussion) and Isaiah Stokes (knee).

White will get 6-11 center Gorjok Gak (concussion) back against South Carolina (12-7, 3-4).

Florida has been able to overcome all the front-court injuries with improved play from point guard Chris Chiozza, shooting guard Egor Koulechov and big men Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone.

Chiozza has 57 assists and just 10 turnovers in his last nine games. Koulechov leads the team in scoring in league play and has really picked up the slack on the glass, getting eight or more rebounds in six of the last seven games. Hayes has 40 blocked shots and has started contributing on the offensive end. Stone has scored in double figures in five of the last six games.

White credited Hayes and Stone for making the most progress.

“They’ve been great for a month, they have,” he said. “They still have stuff they’ve got to work on, just like I do and everyone else on our team. But, boy, have they gotten better since October, both of those guys. … But yeah, the way that we’ve all rallied and mustered up some ugly wins, this team was not capable of in October. So, proud, but a lot of work to do of course, and a huge one” against South Carolina.

The Gamecocks won the last meeting 77-70 to advance to the Final Four. They are a much different team this time around.

So are the Gators, especially in the last month.

“I feel like we are doing a lot of good things right now,” guard Jalen Hudson said. “We need to continue, continue getting better. I feel like we have a good thing going right now.”


More AP college basketball: www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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