By; Travis Kilpatrick
Current standings as of 12/24/18 (NET ranking in parenthesis)
- #22 Houston Cougars – 12-0 (#5)
- Cincinnati Bearcats – 11-2 (#28)
- Temple Owls – 10-2 (#60)
- UCF Knights – 10-2 (#46)
- USF Bulls – 9-2 (#90)
- Tulsa Golden Hurricane – 10-3 (#87)
- UConn Huskies – 9-4 (#92)
- SMU Mustangs – 8-4 (#133)
- Memphis Tigers – 7-5 (#104)
- Wichita State Shockers – 7-5 (#129)
- East Carolina Pirates – 6-5 (#252)
- Tulane Green Wave – 4-8 (#296)
The UCF Knights men’s basketball team started this season with high hopes. While so much of the nation was, rightly so, focused on the continued success of the football team, the basketball team came into the 2018-19 season as the favorites to win the American Athletic Conference (AAC). The Knights returned All-Conference Point Guard, BJ Taylor, and previous Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Tacko Fall. Much was also expected from Aubrey Dawkins returning from injury and sophomore transfer Collin Smith. Now that the non-conference slate is over, it’s time to look at the state of UCF Basketball and their chances of making the tournament for the first time since 2005.
In 2017-18, the American Conference had possibly their best season since Shabazz Napier led 7 seeded UConn on a miraculous journey to a championship in the conference’s first year since rebranding from the old Big East. The AAC sent three teams to the tournament including Cincinnati earning a 2 seed. This year was supposed to be a down season for the conference, but as of the Christmas break, there is a realistic chance to send four teams to the big dance. Houston, Cincinnati, UCF, and Temple sit in the top 60 of the NCAA’s “NET” rankings, which replace the RPI as the tool used to help the selection committee in choosing the field of 68.
UCF will have a tough road if they hope to prove the voters right and win the AAC. In order to make the NCAA tournament without being forced to win the conference tournament, they need to take care of business in the games that they are expected to win. After one “bad loss” already, falling to Florida Atlantic at home by 1 point, UCF needs to ensure that they take care of business at CFE Arena. As it stands now, the only home games they can afford to lose in the eyes of the committee are February 7th against Houston and March 7th against Cincinnati. Luckily for UCF, the road slate was helped by being able to avoid traveling to Tulsa. As the entire basketball world has seemingly been entranced by offense, the best teams in the AAC are defined by their amazing defense. 12-0 Houston and 11-2 Cincinnati sit atop the American as the best defensive teams. Houston and Cincinnati are tied as the 6th best scoring defenses in the entire NCAA only allowing 58 points per game. While UCF goes through stretches of every game showing the best defense that I’ve seen outside of the University of Virginia, they have also shown the inability to cool down team that gets hot from behind the three point arc. That has to change if they want to finish the regular season atop the conference standings.
Let’s talk about some of the players on the Knights and how they might factor into the success of the Knights. Johnny Dawkins has really shortened his depth chart to rely on eight players in order to get the job done. We’ve seen all eight players get into a nice rhythm at moments throughout the season, and if they hit their rhythm at the same time I truly believe that UCF can beat any team.
The preseason First Team All-Conference point guard selection has come into his senior year playing exactly the way he needs to in order to earn that honor. Taylor has once again kept his scoring steady at 17.5 PPG. It’s not only the stats that he’s putting up that makes Taylor so special. It’s his clutch gene and his ability to make the big shot without any nerves or fear of failure. B.J. Taylor is the player that drives this team, and UCF is going to need him to stay healthy if they want to sin the conference.
Junior Terrell Allen has made his way into the starting lineup after backing up B.J. Taylor last season. Allen is one of my favorite players on this team. While he splits time in a very good back court that has four players that could start, I think Allen has been the spark in the starting lineup that we need. With all of the attention being on Taylor, Aubrey Dawkins, and Tacko Fall, Allen gets to draw the lesser defender of an opposing team and he has made opponents pay for that. While he is only averaging 8.4 points per game, Allen is also averaging nearly 5 assists. But what I believe is the biggest impact that he has is that he is shooting 51.9% from behind the arc. UCF was really missing a consistent three point shooter last year after losing Matt Williams, and it looks like they’ve finally replaced that in Terrell Allen
Aubrey Dawkins is the player that the media constantly says will be playing in the NBA one day. While he didn’t start the season off that way, it appears Dawkins has shaken off the rust at the perfect time, coming off back to back big games as the conference slate is set to start. Dawkins put up 19 points and 13 rebounds in an easy win against Stetson and followed that up with 18 points against Illinois State including 5-7 from three. Hopefully Dawkins continues to improve as the season turns on and he shows the world why everyone believes he will be in the NBA one day.
Collin Smith is the single player on this team that I have not been impressed with. Smith transferred in from George Washington University and had to sit out last season. He generated a lot of hype as a 6 foot 11, 235 pound big man that gets to play off of Tacko Fall and use his supreme athleticism to put up big stats while Tacko is manning the middle. This just has not been the case so far this season. Smith is still in the starting lineup and has put up 9 points and 5 rebounds a game, but I believe that he should be a walking double-double waiting to happen, even with the great big men that UCF has. I’ve watched many UCF games this season and I’ve seen Collin Smith get caught flat footed on many different occasions. I’ve seen plays where he is the most athletic guy on the court and is able to use those skills to dominate, but he needs to keep that attitude and focus the entire time he is on the court.
UCF Fans have been blessed to get to watch Tacko Fall grow throughout his four years with the team. After nearly heading to the draft following a dominant sophomore campaign that ended in Fall winning the AAC Defensive Player of the Year, Fall had to sit out most of last season and seemed to take a step back. He has played really well so far in his senior season and while his rebounding has dropped having to share the boards with Collin Smith and Chad Brown, his turnovers have also been cut down and his blocks have tremendously increased to north of 3 blocks a game. There is a lot that Fall impacts in a game that doesn’t go on the stat sheet and the other AAC teams know all to well by now what they can expect from him.
Ceasar DeJesus is a favorite among the staff here at “No Scrubs Allowed” but has had to take a step back with the emergence of Terrell Allen. DeJesus moved from the starting lineup onto the bench and has seen his minutes drop from 27.4 last season all the way down to 15.7 so far this season. Of course, with the drop in minutes he has also seen his productivity drop down to just 5.5 points per game. But UCF fans and fans of DeJesus should be excited to see the form that he is starting to round in to. DeJesus now has had three straight games with 9 points and seems to be finding his groove on this year’s team. Hopefully he stays positive in his attitude and willing to help the team out when he is called on.
Frank Bertz is another fan favorite after transferring in from a Junior College in East LA. While he hasn’t done too much that will capture the nation sitting as the fourth guard behind Taylor, Allen, and DeJesus, UCF fans have seen him show the ability to come straight off the bench and knock down dagger threes to stretch a lead while giving the other guards some much needed rest. UCF will need him to come in and have a positive plus/minus rating so that the players that drive this team will be able to keep fresh legs. That is a very underrated type of player that every team needs, and it seems like Bertz is happy to be that type of player for UCF.
Chad Brown is one of my absolute favorite players on this Knights team and I have openly wondered why he doesn’t start over Collin Smith. I think that Brown may be one of those players that are just better coming off the bench. Brown has such a great energy and has the ability to spark the team when they’re going through one of their dry spells with a huge block or a massive dunk. Much like Frank Bertz, Chad Brown is a type of player that probably isn’t going to make it into the headlines or show up on SportsCenter very often, but every basketball team that hoists a trophy at the end of a season has a player like Chad Brown.
The 2018-19 UCF men’s basketball season may once again be overshadowed by a second straight undefeated season by the football team, but be sure to check back in March when all the football festivities are over because I believe that the UCF basketball team will still have games left to be played on the biggest stage in NCAA Basketball, the NCAA Tournament!