When UCF Men's Basketball defeated the South Florida Bulls on Saturday, the Knights passed their first test in this new stage of their winding season: Life without Tacko Fall.
However, going on the road to beat a team that is winless in conference and going on the road to beat a team that is perhaps the conference's best are distinctly different tasks. The Knights will face the tougher end of that spectrum tonight when they visit the Wichita State Shockers. The game will begin at 9 p.m. on ESPN2.
"This team is excited about getting up there and playing in front of that atmosphere," point guard B.J. Taylor said Tuesday. "I think the biggest thing for us is that we have to be more concentrated, more composed and be a more together team on the road."
The Knights might actually be knocking on the Shockers' door at the right time because the team that was ranked No. 7 in the nation about a week ago hasn't played like it recently. Wichita State has dropped its last two games -- one at home and one on the road -- and both defeats were largely due to defensive lapses. The Shockers have been a traditionally stingy team to score on, but in their loss to SMU on Jan. 17, Wichita State allowed 83 points in 60 possessions. That 1.383 points-per-possession rate was WSU's worst during head coach Gregg Marshall's 10 seasons at the helm. That was followed up by a 73-59 beatdown at Houston on Saturday. As a result, Wichita State's adjusted defensive efficiency rating, according to KenPom.com, plummeted from 26th to 63rd in the span of a week. Meanwhile, the Knights sit at No. 5 in that metric.
Of course, the big question for the Knights is how can their offense exploit what currently ails the Shockers? While the defense has been stellar, UCF's offense ranks 342nd out of 351 Division I teams in points per game. And although Fall was never a true scoring force, his absence has forced head coach Johnny Dawkins to retool his offense on the fly in the middle of conference play.
"The timing of the injury is causing us to kind of make switches in mid-stream," Dawkins said. "... We built a lot of things around [Fall], so now we've kind of tweaked what we do to fit the personnel that we have now."
One of those tweaks might be a return to something that this team has wanted to do all season long but really hasn't had the proper personnel available: Go #UCFast. The preseason injury to Aubrey Dawkins followed by Taylor's broken foot in the first game of the year really put those up-tempo dreams on the backburner. But with Taylor back and with the energetic and athletic 6-foot-9 Chad Brown basically replacing Fall down low, the Knights are looking to generate more possessions. More possessions, as if you need to be told this, equal more chances for points.
"I want to just go out there every night and just do what I do well and that's give energy. Now I'll do it for a longer period of time," said Brown, who logged a double-double in a career-high 34 minutes at USF. "That's an adjustment I'm making very quickly and I think it's helping me and my team."
Taylor said: "Tacko is such a huge presence in the middle and such a good post presence that you don't always want to run with him out there. ... But without him, it allowed us to run more, it allows us to be more dynamic with the stuff we're running. The coaches have put in a lot of great stuff for us in terms of spreading the floor and allowing us to use our speed and quickness."
The Knights will need that speed and quickness to stay in front of one of the nation's best scoring attacks. Wichita State averages more than 80 points per game and is shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range. Although UCF is a work in progress on that side of the floor, Taylor gives the Knights something they sorely lacked during his eight weeks on the shelf: Someone who can create a shot for himself and others. Taylor showcased that ability especially during the second half at USF, making big shots and smart plays that helped UCF erase a second-half deficit. Taylor scored 16 of his 25 points in that latter half, which included a couple of momentum-swinging 3-pointers and critical free throws down the stretch.
Dawkins was asked Tuesday what he thinks from the bench when he sees Taylor stepping up like he did against the Bulls. "I'm glad he's on my team," the head coach said with a wide smile.
Dawkins Shooting Again
One more note: Aubrey Dawkins was seen shooting jumpers during Tuesday's practice. The junior, who will miss this season after sustaining a shoulder injury in October, had been in a sling following his Nov. 1 surgery. No longer.