UCF coach Donnie Jones is accustomed to shepherding his basketball team through adversity.
Jones had little time to recruit players before his first season leading the Knights, so he had to help returning players adapt from former coach Kirk Speraw’s half-court offense to Jones’ up tempo attack. The Knights claimed a big win over Florida, posted an undefeated record in nonconference play and played in the CollegeInsider.com tournament during the 2010-11 campaign.
NCAA investigation. The Knights still managed to upset then-defending national champions Connecticut and Memphis. UCF also earned a spot in the National Invitation Tournament.
The Knights just started year three of Jones’ tenure, but the team already has hit some major hurdles. The NCAA hit the program with a one-year postseason ban and other significant restrictions after committing a variety of major infractions. Seniors Marcus Jordan, C.J. Reed and Josh Crittle have left the team.
Jones said it’s tough losing seniors who were expected to lead the Knights, but he still believes in his team.
“They have great attitudes, great energy, great focus,” Jones said. “… This is a bump in the road that we’re going to drive over the top of and get better.”
It helps to be clearing that bump with a relatively talented roster.
UCF senior forward Keith Clanton was free to transfer to some big-name programs without penalty thanks to the NCAA sanctions, but he decided to stick with the Knights.
Junior guards Isaiah Sykes and Tristan Spurlock are expected to step into big leadership roles.
Jones said he has been pleased with both players’ development.
Sykes improved dramatically between his freshman and sophomore seasons, showing great athleticism and ball handling skills to match his naturally strong defense. His biggest liability was his perimeter shooting. However, Jones said Sykes has worked hard to correct the problem.
“Isaiah’s really worked hard,” Jones said. “His leadership has taken another step now. With us only have one senior, he's that leader. … I really love the way he’s worked at shooting the basketball this summer. He’s extended his range.”
Spurlock earned little playing time his freshman year at Virginia and had to sit out one season due to NCAA transfer rules. Last year, he was clearly still trying to find his place in the Knights’ lineup. Jones called this a big year for Spurlock, who has an opportunity to show what he can do with more training and support.
“He’s got a whole other gear that we can get him to,” Jones said.
While Jordan is the highest profile name walking away from the program, Reed’s departure stings the most. Reed was projected to be the Knights’ starting point guard and was coming off strong summer workouts.
Jones said the Knights will use a point guard by committee approach.
Freshman Philadelphia guard Daiquan Walker and freshman Orlando guard Matt Williams will get a chance to earn early playing time. Jones will also lean on Sykes, who helped run the offense while then-senior point guard A.J. Rompza served a suspension during the first part of last season.
Oklahoma transfer Calvin Newell joined the Knights at the winter break last year and will be eligible to play for the Knights in December. Newell primarily played at the shooting guard position for the Sooners, but Jones said he is confident Newell is capable of running the Knights’ offense.
“We’ve been going back and forth with some point guard and even no point guard at one point for two years,” he said. “… I think we’ve got some options.”
Jones said sophomore forward Kasey Wilson (6-7, 225) continues to improve at a rapid rate and should be ready to help Clanton (6-9, 245) more inside. He said he is pleased with the way freshman forwards Staphon Blair (6-9, 230) and Dylan Karell (6-11, 205) handled summer workouts, adding much-needed muscle to their frames so that they are capable contributing to the post rotation.
Jones had already planned on occasionally using Clanton at the center position, using his athleticism to create headaches for other teams. Memphis and Marshall both have some key strong centers, but most other Conference USA teams UCF will face roll with an undersized, fast lineup."
Sophomore guard Rod Days and walk-on Bobby Horodyski round out the Knights' lineup.
Jones said he is confident the team can get past the latest round of obstacles and compete at a high level.
"The good news is we had a great summer," Jones said. "Our guys had the best summer they've had in my two years here. ... Our guys are very enthusiastic and looking forward to the season.