HARTFORD, Conn. – UCF had a tough ending to a tough season. Now the work begins on getting better, and to that end they have a good base. They showed some reason for hope in the season-ending loss in the first round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
UCF played from behind for much of the game, at one point trailing East Carolina by 17 in the first half. They managed to hang around, though, and that gave them a chance. Their inability to get stops for a stretch took away any real momentum they had for a lot of the second, and kept them from breaking through to eventually tie or take the lead. They didn’t quit, though, and in the final seconds a Kasey Wilson stickback sent the game into overtime.
They had chances to win in overtime as well, including at the end. That they didn’t cash in may just be a sign that they’re not ready to win a game like this just yet.
What this team has going for it starts with their freshman backcourt of B.J. Taylor and Adonis Henriquez. Taylor led the team in scoring, while Henriquez wasn’t far behind, making them one of three teams in the country with freshmen as their top two scorers. They seem to play off each other well, and they were thrust right into key roles right away on this team. Though both shot well on Thursday (Taylor was 8-17 to get his 22 points, while Henriquez was 6-9 including 4-6 from deep), neither shot well all year. That will be one area to improve upon, and as Henriquez does finish the season shooting 39 percent from long range, he’s on his way.
“Both of these guys have come in and we’ve asked a lot from them from an offensive standpoint and a defensive standpoint, and they’ve been two of the most coachable guys that I’ve ever coached,” said head coach Donnie Jones.
With the freshman duo and improving sophomore Brandon Goodwin, the perimeter unit is in pretty good shape. On Thursday, they combined for 49 points on 18-40 shooting (8-16 from deep), 15 assists and four turnovers. They also were the part of the starting lineup Jones could count on, as he used ten different starting lineups but had those three in every one of them save for the four games Taylor missed due to injury.
The frontcourt is going to be the X-factor, as there doesn’t seem to be a lack of talent, but getting production from them seemed to go a long way towards winning. When Wilson scored in double figures, they went 7-4; when Staphon Blair did so, they went 6-3. The few times both did it, the Knights went 4-1. They won’t rely on this unit to lead the way, but they can’t be idle, either.
Wilson is done, but there are bodies that can produce, and there will be additions. Justin McBride has a huge body, and has lost weight over time, so while he’s limited in terms of endurance he can help them. He still managed 31 minutes on Thursday and had a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. He impresses you with his great hands, so if he can stay in shape and continue to develop, he can be part of the solution along with Blair and junior Shaheed Davis, who has a little length. They’ll have to contend with newcomers Tacko Fall, who stands 7’6″ and played with one of the best Nike travel teams, and Chad Brown, who can also help them.
The Knights were not a good defensive team this season, allowing opponents to shoot 45.6 percent from the field. Their inability to get stops to come back at times on Thursday was not an isolated occurrence. They were also out-rebounded, which also speaks further to the frontcourt concerns. Jones alluded to one big adjustment the young core of this team has to make revolving around defense.
“I think sometimes we as a young group get focused – and just not these guys as young, talking about the other guys on our team, too – is that we sometimes let our offense dictate our defense, and our defense needs to dictate our offense so just keep getting stops,” Jones said.
UCF will have a lot of this team back next year, and the recruiting class should strengthen them. If they put in the work in the off-season, they could make a nice jump next year. Guards are important in college basketball, and the Knights have promising young ones, so that’s a good start. They are a big part of why there is reason for hope next year.