It was easy to slough off the Knights’ 25-point road victory over a dreadful Tulane squad last week. Maybe a similar approach is warranted a couple days after ... whatever that was in the UCF Knights’ 20-point loss Sunday to the Memphis Tigers.
That was my initial thought. But it’s difficult to shake this wariness I feel toward this team right now. I’m not going to go full Jeff Sharon and start searching frantically for a panic button, but my concern level is certainly rising after that showing. Here are the reasons why:
1. You can’t coach desire
On Sunday, Memphis played like a team that needed a win. The Tigers had suffered a deflating loss a few days prior at Temple and wanted to do whatever possibly to wash out that taste. They pressed on defense. They crashed the glass at both ends of the floor. The Tigers naturally create a lot of energy through their high-tempo offense, but they also brought it on the defensive end for 40 minutes the likes of which they hadn’t yet this season.
UCF simply didn’t match Memphis’ level of want. Statistically, this manifested itself most on the boards. The Knights’ rebounding troubles continued Sunday as they allowed a season-high 21 offensive rebounds. No matter a team’s talent level, rebounding is often about fundamentals and desire. But bringing the necessary energy has been a problem for the Knights for basically the entire season.
“I thought [they] played with more passion and desire than we did tonight, and that’s disappointing.”
That’s head coach Johnny Dawkins, and he’s not talking about Memphis there.
The “they” is Florida Atlantic, and that quote is from Nov. 11, when UCF allowed 17 offensive boards — the last of which led to a game-winning layup — in a home defeat that was, is and will remain a glaring blemish on this team’s resume.
The Knights were minus-13 on the boards at Wichita State, minus-18 at Memphis and minus-10 on the offensive glass at Missouri, all losses. Even in a win at UConn earlier this month, UCF was shut out in O-boards, 17-0.
The Knights have one of the tallest squads in college basketball, but that length isn’t helping them gain a rebounding edge every night. That’s because if you want to win that battle, you’ve got to fight to grab every missed shot, every loose ball. UCF didn’t do that Sunday and hasn’t done that far too often.
Some of that can be fixed with coaching — getting players in proper box-out positions and working on how to maintain strong hands amid traffic under the basket. But at its core, the players themselves must bring a greater sense of urgency to the court consistently, especially when battling for rebounds. The fact that this has remained difficult for a supposed NCAA Tournament team is quite alarming.
2. UCF won’t have many opportunities like the one it missed Sunday
Without getting too bogged down with talk about quadrants and NET rankings, just take my word on this: There aren’t a lot of high-quality wins available in the AAC this season. I said a couple of weeks ago on the Black and Gold Banneret Podcast that I didn’t think the American was improved from last year, just very competitive throughout.
That’s what made a road game at Memphis — a top-75 team — so important. A win would have given UCF its most valuable W of the season in terms of what the NCAA Tournament committee looks at when figuring out which teams deserve to dance.
But with that chance emphatically dashed, the Knights must move on, and we can look forward to what future quadrant 1 possibilities remain on their regular-season schedule:
vs. Houston on Feb. 7
at Cincinnati on Feb. 21
at Houston on March 2
vs. Cincinnati on March 7
at Temple on March 9
This could change; if South Florida gets hot, that matchup in Tampa on Feb. 27 could join the above group. But that’s only six chances to really boost your resume, all while not slipping up against some of the American’s also-rans. The Knights can’t afford to have results in those games similar to what unfolded Sunday.
3. Going back to a house of horrors
Beyond victories in some of those aforementioned upcoming contests, the Knights can build their NCAA Tournament case with some wins in the conference tournament.
There’s just one catch: That tournament will take place in the FedEx Forum.
After Sunday’s loss, UCF is now 3-18 all-time at that venue. Most of those games came against some elite, John Calipari-coached Tigers title teams. But the Knights have also experienced conference tourney disappointment in Memphis dating back to 2006 and days in Conference USA.
Granted, this doesn’t have a ton to do with this specific team, but if the Knights don’t take care of business over the next six weeks, their postseason fate will possibly hinge on winning three games in three days (or, heaven forfend, four games in four days) at a place where they have won three games in 13 years.
I feel like there is this perception that, because the Knights were the AAC’s preseason favorite, because they are still 15-4, because expectations around the program haven’t been this high in quite a while, UCF is comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field.
That is a false sense of security. I don’t think we have a good idea of how this team measures up against tough competition The Knights have gotten fat on a diet consisting mostly of bad teams. However, tougher competition is coming. Opportunities for UCF to prove that it honestly belongs are attached. One of those first opportunities came this past weekend, and the Knights failed largely because of something that has dogged them all year: an inconsistent energy level.
I don’t think there are major schematic problems here. We know the talent and versatility are there. This team can compete against a variety of attacks. Inside and out, this roster has depth and different ways to win.
But if the Knights continue to get outworked and outhustled, the B.J. Taylor and Tacko Fall era will come to a close without an NCAA Tournament appearance. That would be a damn shame.