A blip or a sign of something dire?
Following what happened this past weekend in the Myrtle Beach Invitational, it seems clear that the correct answer is the former.
The Knights’ sweep through South Carolina featured victories over two teams that are projected to finish second in their conference (Cal State Fullerton and Saint Joseph’s) and Conference USA’s preseason favorite, Western Kentucky, which defeated West Virginia to reach the final.
And UCF pretty much blew them all out. No game was decided by fewer than 16 points.
You might remember how FAU corralled more offensive rebounds than UCF and that head coach Johnny Dawkins said after the game that the Owls played with more passion than his players. I’m not sure if that was in the back of their minds heading into their opener versus Fullerton, but the Knights attacked the boards consistently, holding a 45-33 edge over the Titans, including 13-8 on the offensive glass. Those extra opportunities led to a 19-8 advantage in second-chance points.
Against Saint Joe’s, UCF’s offense was led by a point guard, just not that point guard. Instead of B.J. Taylor, it was Terrell Allen picking up the slack, scoring a career-high 22 points on 8-for-11 from the field.
It’s early, but Allen, a pass-first player, is now averaging 11.6 points per game and has scored in double figures twice. He did so only four times in 32 games last year.
We know Aubrey Dawkins can fill up the cup; we just hadn’t seen it much thus far. Heading into the title game versus the Hilltoppers, Dawkins was just 5-for-26 from 3-point range this season. Then he suddenly awoke, hitting three treys within the first three minutes of the second half of that game. It was part of a 21-point effort as Dawkins knocked down five of nine attempts from deep. His sharpshooting earned him tourney MVP honors as well as ...
The defense is always going to be there for the Knights; none of their three opponents shot better than 40 percent. But what is going to take this team to another level and why some think they can be this year’s Cinderella is their improvement on the other end of the floor. UCF had four players reach double-digit points in each of the three games during the Invitational. Dawkins broke out. Allen opened eyes. Tacko Fall was a stable force inside, scoring 12, 12 and 13 points, respectively. And newcomer Frank Bertz was a long-range weapon off the bench.
And really, the Knights rolled without much from Taylor, at least offensively. He shot just 9-of-30 from the field over the weekend, which is actually encouraging. This team doesn’t need “Big Shot B.J.” to save them at every turn. It’s deeper and has more players who can beat defenses than in years past.
Take the WKU game as an example: The Knights scored six points in about the first 10 minutes of the opening half and trailed by 11. They couldn’t solve the Hilltoppers’ multiple defenses nor stop freshman center Charles Bassey. In previous times, everything might have been thrust upon Taylor’s shoulders to bring them back.
Instead, Taylor didn’t have a point in that first half, and it was Dawkins and Bertz who helped the Knights close the gap to four by halftime. Then Dawkins, AKA “Prince Aub”, caught fire out the break and UCF never looked back.
It was only three games, but they were a showcase of what we know this team can do: Be varied on offense, stifling on defense, strong on the boards and accurate from beyond the arc.
The Knights still have flaws, of course. Most glaringly, they are probably going to lose a tough game or two due to poor free-throw shooting alone. And that FAU loss might have a slight but significant impact on the Knights’ seeding when the brackets are put together in March, assuming the Owls are as bad as I expect them to be. Not to get ahead of myself in November or anything...
But the Knights put that game behind them emphatically last weekend. So, for all intents and purposes, as UCF is once again receiving votes in the Coaches Poll, we’re back to where we started with this team. That’s a much better place to be than where we were with it nine days ago.