Oh, just give me a few more minutes to bask in its warmth.
I know I should stop living in the past as the UCF Basketball team is mere hours away from its NIT semifinal showdown versus TCU. Two more wins would net the Knights an NIT championship, which would obviously be the program’s greatest achievement. But it still won’t match what happened last Wednesday.
That was program’s greatest night, and I can’t stop reliving it in my mind. It was simply awesome for myriad reasons.
Where else can you start than with the crowd? In what became kind of the theme of the night, no one was prepared for it. The parking situation, as our Jeff Sharon attested in a postgame podcast, became a free-for-all as tipoff approached, with people settling for dirt lots and any other open spaces in their rush to get to CFE Arena. The concession stands were certainly not prepared as the lines there ran 40-50 people deep. I hope that wait for a hot pretzel was worth it.
I’ll admit that I was not prepared. A UCF basketball game was sold out?! Is this real life? Fortunately, there was a friendly neighborhood ticket scalper nearby. Anything to be a part of this environment.
As I looked around the gathering of 10,011 and couldn’t find a single empty seat, I thought about all of those articles from the Central Florida Future (RIP) dating back more than a decade that pleaded with the UCF fan base to support this team, even when they played in the much smaller UCF Arena. Even when they were winning conference championships with the Atlantic Sun, it was oddly tough for the Knights to fill their own house. Now, I and about 100 others had no choice put to post up in the standing room only area behind the student section. And this house, aside from scant dots of Illini orange, was bathed in black and gold. That was what support looks like.
And they were loud. I’d say the highest decibel reading didn’t come when the clock hit all zeroes. No, you would have to go back to an early portion of the second half for that. Guard B.J. Taylor sunk a 3-pointer to push UCF’s lead to a then-game-high 18 and the crowd absolutely exploded. As Illinois called a timeout, I honestly couldn’t hear myself scream. I think it’s that moment I will remember above all others. And that this was taking place on campus, as our Eric Lopez pointed out in that podcast, exponentially added to the importance and impact of the night.
After the court-storming, after the PA system pumped out Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” head coach Johnny Dawkins got on the mic with a big, red apple in his left hand. He was at the pulpit and his congregation was rapt. I don’t think many people were prepared for Dawkins to be in such a lofty position so soon. Perhaps they should have been.
When Dawkins accepted this job 364 days prior to the victory over Illinois, many greeted the news with a collective “meh.” The fact that Dawkins had reached only one NCAA Tournament in his eight seasons as the head coach at Stanford was seen as a negative. His two NIT Championships? Discounted because, again, it wasn’t the college basketball championship that UCF fans desired. Who cares about the NIT anyway, right?
But instead of being dismissed, Dawkins’ accomplishments at Stanford should have always been lauded because he did it at Stanford. Yes, that school has a lot of resources and riches, but most of them are being spent on, you know, education. It’s a university where the coaches aren’t the most powerful people on campus. The basketball program doesn’t draw one-and-done kids or other high-quality talent because, in some cases, they just don’t meet the academic standard. Being a student-athlete, in that order, is preached at every university; it is real at Stanford. Taking the Cardinal to a postseason tournament five times in eight years isn’t a bad percentage, and it’s a rate that Knights faithful should have embraced up front, especially following the Donnie Jones dark ages.
And to those fans who scoffed at Dawkins’ NIT success when he set foot in Orlando, how much are you enjoying this run now?
On the mic, Dawkins led the court-covering fans in a “UCF!” chant and said he was ready to take a bite out of this big apple. He will probably become a three-time NIT champ if his players stick with what got them to Madison Square Garden: aggressive defense, rebounding as a group and 3-pointers.
It is more understood if you weren’t prepared for this group of players to be on that kind of stage in 2017. The Knights went 12-18 last season and hadn’t been a part of a postseason tourney for five long years. With a coaching change and only three seniors on the returning roster, growing pains amid a rebuild were almost certainly on the menu. Well, that rebuild seemingly ended around mid-February. Every college basketball program facing such a reality would pray to be as fortunate.
Granted, there is no replacing senior guard Matt Williams, the all-time greatest long-range shooter to play at UCF. But three incoming transfers — Dayon Griffin from Louisiana Tech, Terrell Allen from Drexel and Dawkins’ youngest son, Aubrey, from Michigan — can all drain it from the perimeter. Aubrey may be the most athletic player the program has ever had. You add those three to Taylor, the ever-improving Tacko Fall, A.J. Davis and others, and the Knights suddenly find themselves in a position unfamiliar since their days in the A-Sun: The expectation of being in the NCAA Tournament.
I’m getting ahead of myself. There is still plenty of business — and hopefully celebrating — left to do this season. But Wednesday was the night when this program changed. When a national audience saw how good this team can be and how this fan base can influence a game. It was an eye-opening experience for someone like me who has followed UCF basketball for almost 15 years, I’ll know better next time. With Dawkins, a talented roster and that kind of support all meshing together, we should all be prepared for this program to reach greater heights in the years to come.