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The Two Strengths of UCF Men's Basketball are Already Being Tested

Sophomore guard Chance McSpadden is one of the Knights who will have to step up amid the team's recent rash of injuries. (Photo: Derek Warden)
Sophomore guard Chance McSpadden is one of the Knights who will have to step up amid the team's recent rash of injuries. (Photo: Derek Warden)

It's simple for the UCF men's basketball team: Every game this season is a game of D&D. And I'm not talking about Dungeons and Dragons.

Depth and defense.

That is the foundation of the Knights. Yet, less than a week into the 2017-18 season, that foundation already has a few fissures.

It began with the loss of junior swingman Aubrey Dawkins, who tore a shoulder labrum while diving for a loose ball in practice last month. He underwent season-ending surgery Nov. 1, which went well according to his father and head coach, Johnny Dawkins.

Then the centerpiece of the squad, Tacko Fall, was rested for last Friday's season opener versus Mercer because of a sore hip. Coach Dawkins has said that Fall's ailment isn't major and that he will be back soon, although there is no concrete timetable for when he will take the floor. Fall practiced Tuesday, and Dawkins feels good about how his big man is progressing.

The latest crack in the foundation is rather literal as junior point guard B.J. Taylor will be sidelined for at least the next month after fracturing his left foot during the second half of that premiere game. Taylor, who missed his entire 2015-2016 campaign due to a right foot injury and then sat out seven games last season because of a broken thumb, is trying to stay positive with the knowledge that he will be back later on this season.

"I've been through this before. I've been through injuries and setbacks," Taylor said. "It's obviously something that you don't want to have to deal with, but it is what it is. It's the reality of the situation."

Being without Dawkins, Fall and Taylor is a sobering reality for this team. Just take a step back and realize what the Knights are currently missing.

In Dawkins, you have a long 6-foot-6 wing, a versatile scorer and possibly the best transfer UCF men's basketball has ever had. He was the favorite of many to most fill the void left by Matt Williams, the best 3-point shooter in program history.

There is truly no replacing Fall's presence on the court unless you can animate a 7-foot-6-inch tree and teach it how to rebound and block shots. As forward A.J. Davis said last week, Fall is one of a kind. He is the anchor of a defense that held opponents to just 36 percent shooting last season, and defense is where everything starts for UCF.

Taylor isn't the biggest Knight, but there's an easy case to make that no one player means more to this team than the Orlando native. Taylor is its heart and soul. He is the leader on the floor and off. He carries a steely-eyed poise, is never overwhelmed by the moment and is the player whom the Knights want with the ball in his hands whenever there is a shot that must be made.

Now two of these men will not play for an extended period of time, one of whom won't play at all this season. And while no alarms are being sounded quite yet regarding Fall's long-term status, that's a big hip, literally and figuratively. Who's to say what he's experiencing now won't nag him into next spring? Dawkins' squad must be prepared for such a scenario.

"I told our guys right from the beginning of the season, 'We're going to face adversity; we just don't know when it's going to strike,'" Coach Dawkins said. "Of course, I didn't know it was going to strike in Game 1."

The Knights would not have been able to lose their three best players last season and still keep their heads above water; they just didn't have the depth to make that possible. This season, however, the story is different. What was an eight-man rotation in 2016-17 now looks like it could include 10 players per night once it's at full strength. Nine Knights, including Taylor, played versus Mercer on Friday. Each of them got on the score sheet and played no fewer than 12 minutes.

If you're searching for a scorer who can reasonably replace what the younger Dawkins could have provided, there are guards Ceasar DeJesus and Dayon Griffin, both of whom who put in 16 points against the Bears. DeJesus, at just 6-foot-2, has a knack for scoring in the paint and has already drawn praise from his head coach for his ability to finish. Griffin, a Louisiana Tech transfer, averaged 11.3 points per game in his last full season of 2015-16.

Defense remains this team's identity, full stop. It will certainly look different for the time being without Fall in the middle, but with Davis, Chad Brown, Myles Douglas and Rokas Ulvydas, the Knights have a handful of energetic post players who can still stymy most offenses. What those Knights did specifically early in the second half against Mercer spurred UCF on to victory as it kept the Bears to less than 30 percent shooting in those final 20 minutes.

Perhaps the team's most defensive-minded player is guard Chance McSpadden, who spent last season recovering from a torn ACL. Dawkins, upon meeting McSpadden for the first time after he was hired to run this program in March 2016, recalled that the redshirt sophomore immediately talked about his desire to play D.

"I knew I had to get everybody else into the stance except him," Dawkins said of McSpadden. "He's ready to go."

McSpadden credits his unique mindset to his roots in Winter Haven.

"Shout out to where I'm from: Polk County. That's just what we do down there," he said. "Polk County is a defensive-minded county in general and I just think that's what really molded me in high school to really play a lot of defense. That really carried on to college basketball."

When it comes to replacing Taylor, Dawkins has been very direct with who needs to step up. On the court, he'll call upon Terrell Allen, who gave a "yeoman's effort" against Mercer according to Dawkins and was in Taylor's starting lineup spot for Wednesday night's game versus Gardner-Webb. Dawkins calls Allen a throwback guard since he prefers to open up scoring opportunities for others rather than prioritizing his own shot.

"I need Terrell," Dawkins said Tuesday. "Terrell's a pure point guard. It's an opportunity for him to assume that role and he's going to have to learn to lead. B.J. was our captain and our leader. Terrell is really going to have to step into that type of role, be more assertive and look to run our team."

But Taylor's impact as an off-the-court leader must also be addressed. For that, the head coach said the senior Davis "definitely" needs to be more vocal around his teammates.

All of this tells you just how much the Knights have changed from a season ago. Even without arguably its top three players, this team remains confident that it still has the personnel necessary to fortify weaknesses and win games. The only thing it could use more of right now is better luck.

"Hopefully this bug will go away from us. Please, get away from us," Dawkins said after the Mercer win. "If you guys (the media) know any way to get that done, help me with it. It's been tough. But for us, we're a no-excuse program. Our job is to find a way as coaches and as players. That's what we plan to do."