While most every Knights fan is currently focused on the end of UCF Football's season, UCF Men's Basketball is, in one way, beginning its season tonight. With their non-conference schedule complete, the "preseason," as head coach Johnny Dawkins calls it, is over for UCF. Conference play presents a fresh slate and it starts at 9 p.m. on ESPN2 with a visit to the SMU Mustangs, who haven't lost at home in their last 31 contests, a streak that spans back to February 2016.
"You want to be in games like that. You want to be in environments like that," Dawkins said of facing SMU right out of the gate.
But are the Knights really ready for such a test? Obviously, they have no choice and have used a current five-game winning streak to build a nice 9-3 record. But it's not a stretch to say this team is not where it would like to be at this point in the season. Floor general B.J. Taylor remains sidelined by a broken left foot. He was originally scheduled to miss 4-6 weeks, but that six-week mark came and went last Friday, and Taylor is still using a scooter to get around. Still, Dawkins said this past Thursday that Taylor hasn't experienced any setbacks, is healing well and that the team hopes to have him playing again within two weeks.
Past Taylor's absence, Dawkins is still looking for a full 40 minutes of what he calls "UCF defense" from his team, and center Tacko Fall has said he isn't quite all the way back from his preseason hip injury. However, there have definitely been indications that the Knights are headed in the right direction on both fronts. UCF has held its last three opponents to less than 33 percent shooting in the second half.
"[Defense] has to be our DNA," Dawkins said.
And in that same time span, Fall has notched three double-doubles, dominating overmatched, undersized opponents on his way to leading the nation in field goal percentage (78.1) and being named the AAC Player of the Week. It hasn't always been so easy for Fall on the offensive end, but his larger outputs correlate with the team's newer players such as underclassmen guards Terrell Allen and Ceasar DeJesus and long-range threat Dayon Griffin -- all of whom are seeing starters minutes -- becoming more comfortable with playing with a 7-foot-6 target in the middle of the paint.
"Our guys are understanding how to play off each other. They're understanding how to use Tacko better," Dawkins said.
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The offense hasn't completely fallen on Tacko. Senior leader A.J. Davis has contributed 10.7 points per game and is a few rebounds shy from actually averaging a double-double. Griffin, who was shooting just 22.9 percent from 3-point range prior to last week, has hit five of his last 12 attempts from above the arc. His marksmanship is something the Knights crave, especially with perimeter weapons Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins injured. UCF has averaged the fewest 3-point makes per game of any team in the AAC thus far.
"I feel back in my groove," Griffin said following UCF's 89-64 victory over South Carolina State on Thursday. "I'm starting to get back comfortable with who I am and believing in myself. I think early on I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. Now I'm just playing the game for the love of the game. I think that's helping me a lot.
"Me getting back into my groove before conference is definitely big for me, my confidence and for my team. They believe in me too."
To hang with SMU and the East Carolina Pirates before their AAC home opener versus Memphis on Jan. 3, the Knights will need more baskets in bulk from the likes of Fall and Griffin. They need to continue fine-tuning their strength on defense. They need to continue feeding Fall in the post and have him look for shooters when opponents inevitably crash down on him. And perhaps most of all, they need Taylor to get healthy.
This team is undoubtedly a work in progress and it will find out quickly if it has made enough progress to compete in a deep and challenging league.
"I think we're getting better," Fall said last week. "I think it's showing from the beginning of the season until now. I see an improvement. I think the guys see it and the coaches, most definitely. They always preach it to us: There's always another step to take. And we're not even at full strength; we don't have B.J. yet. This team can go really far."