UCF Men's Basketball's season is over, and that's unfortunate, because this year, the job Johnny Dawkins did coaching this team far out-stretched the job he did last year.
The Knights finished 19-13 overall (9-9 in The American), and were not invited to the NIT sheerly because of bad luck. 12 of the 32 teams in the NIT were automatic qualifiers that won their conference regular seasons but failed to win their conference tournaments (Compare that to ten auto bids last year, when UCF made it to the semifinals). In addition, Temple got in at 17-15 overall (8-10 AAC, behind UCF), while Memphis (21-13, 10-8 AAC) and Tulsa (19-12, 12-6) were left out in the cold.
No AAC teams accepted a bid to the CBI.
That's a real shame, because this UCF team deserved to have at least one more shot to play before the home crowd. As good as last year's run in the NIT (and 24-12 record) was, this year's squad left every last drop of whatever it is they extracted from themselves out on the floor this season. The problem was there wasn't much there to extract. And that's not because of a lack of talent - we saw flashes of brilliance from several young players. It was a lack of availability.
UCF was expecting to enter this season with a starting five that would likely have looked like this:
- B.J. Taylor
- Cesar DeJesus
- A.J. Davis
- Aubrey Dawkins
- Tacko Fall
October 30th, 12 days before the opener:
Sad news from Aubrey Dawkins today.— UCF Men's Basketball (@UCF_MBB) October 31, 2017
His message to Knight Nation pic.twitter.com/s0FonQxO5p
January 20th, about the same time Taylor returned:
Tacko Fall is out for the rest of UCF basketball's 2017-18 season with a shoulder injury. https://t.co/PGgQMWnIZ7— osknights (@osknights) January 20, 2018
Boom, boom, BOOM. But wait! There's more:
Last year, UCF had remarkable injury luck. Playing with a rotation of essentially seven players, six Knights saw action in at least 34 of their 36 games, with four of them - Matt Williams, Tacko Fall, Nick Banyard and Chad Brown - playing all 36.
This year that luck evened out.
Now consider that this team won 19 games and finished .500 in the conference with a maximum of 70% of B.J. Taylor, A.J. Davis, and a lot of duct tape and chicken wire.
And still, the Knights went 12-4 at home with three of those four losses by four points or less:
- 62-59 to Missouri, an NCAA team.
- 69-65 to Houston, an NCAA team and conference runner-up
- 75-71 in OT to #16 Wichita State, an NCAA team
Oh and UCF was down three, 39-36, to eventual conference champ #6 Cincinnati at home with six minutes left, but lost by 9.
This is how razor-sharp the margin is between March Madness and March Sadness.
Great as last year was, this year was a masterpiece by Johnny Dawkins, who pushed an inexperienced and banged-up group within one win of 20 victories in a season where they had no business winning ten, given all they went through. That's a testament to the younger players, who learned on the fly, and the veterans like Taylor, who fought through the season in heroic fashion on a busted foot (And don't let anyone tell you he was truly healthy. Just look at the tape. He wasn't).
By all accounts, this team deserved one more shot to get to 20 wins, and it's a shame they won't get it.
Knights fans should be much more encouraged heading into next year, with hopefully a healthy Taylor, Fall, and Dawkins in the mix.
Granted, this won't make anyone feel any better. Getting snubbed by the NIT the year after their semifinal appearance at Madison Square Garden is not the way you want to end your season. Expectations are tyrannical like that.
But like we've seen above, sometimes season-long fortunes can change on the flip of a coin. With the talent UCF has coming back, next year some of those breaks should go the Knights' way.
That is, of course, if they can stay healthy.