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A Big-Picture Look at UCF’s Showdown vs. No. 12 Houston

BGB’s Brian Murphy tries to provide a little long-term perspective ahead of this much-anticipated matchup.

NCAA Basketball: Central Florida at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

You can sense the energy in the air ahead of tonight’s game between the UCF Knights and the No. 12 Houston Cougars.

That energy is certainly warranted. Hopefully the CFE Arena will be full of it. This Knights team deserves it with what it has accomplished thus far and with a 21-1 Houston squad paying a visit. The Knights, who are just two-point underdogs in Vegas, have beaten a higher-ranked team only once. (That occurred in 2011 on a neutral court against No. 4 UConn). So with a memorable and arguably historic moment possible, UCF needs to have its fan base present and at full throat. Because if not now, when?

Still, while the fans should be loud and proud and numerous, I have seen some rather, uh, bold takes on this game during the week. A couple of publications — I’m not going to out them — have taken a line that this game — this one game — will determine whether or not the Knights get an NCAA Tourney bid.

That is demonstrably false.

With that said, let’s quickly run through what a win and a loss would mean for the Knights moving forward.

With a Win...

  • UCF would be able to put a bright, flashy, grand feather in its cap. Again, it wouldn’t decide their March fate, but it would be a marquee win over one of the country’s best teams. Maybe it moves UCF up a full seed in bracket projections. It would definitely give UCF a little wider margin for error, say, if they slip up at home versus USF or SMU, or can’t secure a road victory versus Cincinnati or these Cougars. Beating Houston is a high-end Quadrant 1 triumph. Those play a big role in separating bubble teams when the selection committee has to determine the championship field.
  • The Knights might be imbued with a new sense of confidence. Yes, they beat Alabama, but that was more than two months ago. UCF’s greatest challenge since then came at Memphis a couple of weekends back, and they were whipped by 20. This team has pretty much followed expectations since that Crimson Tide game, taking care of the opponents they should defeat. A win tonight would keep UCF in the AAC regular-season title race, but also, and perhaps more importantly, give them a point of evidence that they can truly compete with any team in this conference on any night.
  • A court-storming should be in order as well. Do they even allow those in the AAC? No matter. Again, these kinds of super high-profile games don’t come around for the Knights often — they have hosted just four top-15 teams through the past four years and only six in the history of the program. It’s been almost two years since UCF upset such a squad on campus, and with the Knights’ postseason future very fluid, the fans and players should enjoy this W with an old-fashioned mosh at center court. It’s college sports’ signature celebration, and it would make sense tonight.

With a Loss...

  • There’s no shame in losing to a team ranked No. 12 in the polls and No. 7 in the NET. Really, even at home. And I want to make this point perfectly clear:

A win would help more than a loss would hurt.

Honestly, if the Knights fall by just two or three points, the impact may be minimal in the NET rankings, which does take margin of victory or defeat into account, capped at 10 points. By the way, UCF currently sits at No. 42 in the NET.

But regardless, a loss is no reason to freak out. More than anything, it puts greater importance on the Knights’ remaining high-profile contests, especially road trips to Cincy, Houston and Temple. It probably also means that the Knights can’t afford any of those slip-ups in should-win games (looking at you, Mustangs).

With 10 games remaining in the regular season, I look at the slate as a pair of five-game seasons. The Knights can afford to go 3-2 in this current stretch — vs. Houston, at SMU, vs. Memphis, vs. South Florida, at Cincinnati — but only if there is a win on either end of that schedule versus one of this conference’s top two teams. A 4-1 record over these next five games would be fantastic. And yes, that leaves room for a loss to Houston tonight.

UCF closes the regular season like so: vs. SMU, at USF, at Houston, vs. Cincy, at Temple.

That SMU home game is a must-can’t-lose. A 3-2 record in this stretch here would look pretty good, too. Road wins at Temple and USF currently fall into Quadrant 1.

So, I think a 6-4 close to the regular season would be good enough to at least keep the Knights squarely on the bubble and leave them with bit of work to do in the conference tourney inside the *GASP* FedEx Forum in Memphis.

Anything less probably means UCF would need to advance to the tournament final, at minimum, to get a bid. Anymore more — 7-3? — would put the Knights in a really good position. Also it would help if Bama (45) and UConn (79) moved into the top-30 and top-75 of the NET rankings, respectively. That would turn two Quadrant 2 wins into Quadrant 1s.

Ultimately, there are multiple positive scenarios that remain quite possible even if Houston gets the best of UCF tonight. So, enjoy this one. Just don’t go over the top with what the result means to the Knights’ NCAA Tournament chances with so much basketball to be played.