How do you top the best season in program history? That’s the impossible question the UCF men’s basketball program and head coach Johnny Dawkins have to answer after a historic 2018-19 season.
That’s not a slight to the Knights’ basketball program either, as they’ve only been playing at the Division 1 level since the 1984-85 season. Last season’s group was the first ever Knight team to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large and decisively beat VCU 73-58 in the opening round for the program’s fist ever win in March Madness.
The fact that they came breathtakingly close to upsetting 1-seed Duke in the Round of 32 shouldn’t overshadow what a historic season it was for that Knights team.
Keeping Dawkins in Orlando was a good start to the rebuild after he got some interest from schools with vacancies during the last coaching carousel. But replacing top scorers BJ Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins, along with man-mountain Tacko Fall was never going to be easy. Overlooked also is the loss of Terrell Allen, last year’s starting point guard, who grad transferred to Georgetown.
Junior power forward Collin Smith is the lone returning regular starter from a year ago. Smith is kind of an enigma. Cougar fans might remember Smith’s last game in Houston: a 21 point/7 rebound performance that sealed a seismic 69-64 upset of the home team. That game was a stark contrast to the UH/UCF game in Orlando where Smith played only 11 minutes, attempted 1 shot and had 3 fouls.
In the current season Smith has averaged a team leading 13.1 points/game and 2.2 offensive rebounds/game, another team high.
With all the departures from last year’s team the Knights went after transfers heavily, highlighted by Dazon Ingram a grad transfer from Alabama. Ingram has stepped in as the Knights’ primary ball-handler and naturally leads the team in assists and also rebounds per game. The match-up of Nate Hinton or Quentin Grimes defending Ingram will be one to watch.
The Knights have been a pretty terrible shooting from beyond the arc and as a team are currently 279th nationally in 3-point field goal %. Junior Ceasar DeJesus is the only player shooting above 40% on 3-pointers and has only taken 26 in 13 games. The team’s highest volume 3-point shooters: junior Brandon Mahan (28.8%- 3-point FG%), freshman Darin Green Jr. (34.3%) and senior Frank Bertz (31.0%) are all guys that could probably stand to be more selective.
Outside of Smith, the frontcourt doesn’t have anyone who has consistently contributed offensively. Other than being an excellent offensive rebounding team (45th nationally in Off. Rebounding %) the Knights aren’t exceptional in any offensive area. They’ll generally try and create offense inside the arc and that’ll put them head-to-head with a Cougar defense that’s 15th nationally in opponent 2-point field goal %.
Like the Cougars, the Knights don’t generally play at a high tempo (243rd- Adjusted Tempo) but unlike the Cougars they’ve struggled to score against solid competition. Against the Knights’ 4 highest rated KenPom opponents (Miami, Penn, Oklahoma, Temple) they didn’t break 70 points and in their last 2 didn’t break 60.
Whatever warts they have, I still expect the Knights to play tough defense when they come to the Fertitta Center and make the Cougars work to win their first conference game of the 2019-20 season.