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UCF Men's Basketball Hoping to Make AAC Tourney Run

KNIGHTS DRAW EAST CAROLINA IN TONIGHT'S FIRST ROUND

Senior forward A.J. Davis (left) and junior guard B.J. Taylor will have to be at their best if the Knights want to win the AAC Conference Tournament. (Photo: Derek Warden)
Senior forward A.J. Davis (left) and junior guard B.J. Taylor will have to be at their best if the Knights want to win the AAC Conference Tournament. (Photo: Derek Warden)

"It's back to 0-0 again. ... A new season is about to begin."

UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins is right. The Knights' new season begins tonight. It could also end tonight. That's the nature of tournament basketball.

UCF, the No. 6 seed in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, will face the 11th-seeded East Carolina Pirates at the Amway Center with tipoff scheduled for some point between 9-9:30 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

The Knights are preaching their usual philosophy of focusing on one game at a time. But every Black and Gold fan knows that this team must win four games in four days if it wants to achieve its preseason goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament. The Knights don't want to approach this tourney in such a macro way, but senior forward A.J. Davis has admitted that reality is in the back of the players' minds.

"You've got to be mentally tough, that's the biggest thing," Davis said of what it takes to go 4-for-4. "You're going to be tired. You're going to be thinking about what's ahead of you. But I also think our coaching staff has done a good job of getting us in tournaments and different situations where we know how to play those games and go back-to-back."

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For the Knights to have any chance of going back-to-back-to-back-to-back, they will have to rely chiefly upon their third-ranked scoring defense at one end and offensive leaders Davis and junior guard B.J. Taylor at the other. Those two have taken more than 50 percent of the Knights' shots over their past seven games and have averaged more than 18 points per during that span. Their high level of involvement has been by design.

"After we went into a little bit of slump, I think me and B.J. kind of took it upon ourselves to take a bigger role in what we were doing on the court," Davis said. "That just made me play better basketball because I'm putting more expectations on myself."

The clock is ticking on Davis' UCF career, which has also played a role, although a small one, into his increased aggression on the court. But he sees this week as a blessing because he will get the opportunity to play out some of his final basketball right here in Orlando, in front of the same fans who have cheered him on for the past three years.

"That would mean everything to me to have our fans be there for my last couple of games," he said.

Before UCF gets to thinking about playing a couple of games, it must win its first one against ECU. The Knights notched a 20-point victory when these schools met in Greenville, N.C. on the last day of 2017. But in the two-plus months since, much has changed and, according to Dawkins, these are two different teams. An injured Taylor didn't play in that first meeting while freshman guard Shawn Williams, the AAC Freshman of the Year, logged just 13 scoreless minutes for East Carolina.

Williams (12.9 points per game) and senior guard B.J. Tyson (15 PPG), pace a Pirates offense that would like to run UCF up and down the court. The Knights, who operate one of the nation's most methodical attacks, obviously want to grind the Pirates down and get them out of their up-tempo rhythm. But most of all, Taylor said its important that the Knights not look past a squad that went just 4-14 in AAC contests this season.

"I think our biggest thing for them is respecting their talent and respecting their individual players' abilities because they do have some talented guys," Taylor said.

"I'm just excited to get out there on the floor because it's March Madness. Anything can happen at this time of year."

Even a No. 6 seed winning four games in four days.