Just as in their previous three games, there were positives for the UCF Knights to take away from their meeting with the SMU Mustangs on Wednesday night.
UCF showed a lot of fight to turn what began as a 13-0 game into a close contest for much of the remainder. Collin Smith got in foul trouble again, but he didn’t let it drag him down as he was the go-to scorer UCF needs him to be for stretches of the second half. Matt Milon had absolutely his best performance of the year. Smith, Milon and Ceasar DeJesus each scored 19 points.
But ultimately, no amount of makeup can erase the pig underneath. The Knights were done in by SMU’s 13 3-pointers and lost, 81-74.
UCF is now 0-3 in conference play for the first time since January 1997 and is enduring its first four-game losing streak since February 2017.
But hey, let’s start by delving a little deeper into what I thought was the game’s most uplifting development for UCF.
Milon was On
We finally saw the Matt Milon that Knight fans envisioned prior to the season. His shooting touch had started to thaw coming into this game after a frigid start — he was 5-for-27 overall in his first seven games and 11-for-28 in his next seven — but this was Milon shooting well for a sustained period for really the first time this season. He hit 5-of-9 from deep, 7-of-12 overall for 19 points. He scored 13 points in the first half, and head coach Johnny Dawkins rightfully stuck with him after halftime. Milon played 31 minutes, more than double his season average.
“I thought he came out and he was aggressive, and it always is good when you make shots,” Dawkins said of Milon in his postgame radio interview. “To see the ball go in a few times, there’s nothing like that. He’s been a confident shooter his entire career. I think him seeing it go in just kind of reignited him and he was off to the races.”
Shooting is a fickle mistress for all players save for the all-time greats. To make your way as a shooter means you have to put up with droughts simply because the shots aren’t always going to fall. So, while I’m not naive to believe that Milon will unquestionably be better than 40 percent from 3-point range the rest of the way, this is at least a relief to witness. We know about this team’s scoring struggles, so having Milon as a realistic threat on the outside can only help.
SMU Just Hit Too Many Shots
Trite and true. As I just referenced, shooting comes and goes. For the Mustangs, it came and stayed and made itself comfortable against the Knights. SMU knocked down a season-high 13 3-pointers. Five players hit multiple 3s, including sophomore guard Feron Hunt, who went 2-for-5 from behind the arc despite not attempting a 3 in his previous three games and going 2-for-10 over his past seven.
Yes, the Knights’ defense deserves some blame for not being tight enough on the perimeter. But sometimes, a team of 34-percent 3-point shooters makes 54 percent of their attempts. Welcome to the vagaries of basketball.
“All the shots that they hit weren’t uncontested,” Dawkins said. “... They got on a roll and they started knocking them down.”
Losing at the Line
Free throws were a huge part of the story in Friday’s loss at Houston. They didn’t play as much of a leading role Wednesday, but the result is still worth mentioning. The Mustangs, who are the best free-throw shooting team in the American Athletic Conference, went 16-for-20 from the line. UCF, 9-for-11. In the first half, SMU took 11 free throws while UCF missed its only one.
Many college coaches — Dawkins’ mentor, Mike Kryzyewski, perhaps most famously — subscribe to the philosophy that you should aim to make more free throws than your opponent attempts. Basically, get the rim and be physical on offense, and play hard without fouling on defense.
Why do I bring this up? Because of this stat that our Eric Lopez passed along to me following the game: The Knights are now 3-5 this season when their total of free-throw makes doesn’t surpass their opponents’ free-throw attempts. But they are 6-1 when they do live on the right side of that philosophy.
“We just have to keep on being aggressive, attacking the basket. That’s the makeup of our team,” Dawkins said. “We have to get some paint touches and we have to put guys in position where they can foul us. And we just have to do a better job of it at the end of the day. Don’t make excuses; just try to get there and try to draw more contact.”
It only gets tougher. Granted, we knew this opening stretch would be anything but forgiving. I mentioned it when the season’s schedule was released in September.
The conference schedule for #UCF men's basketball looks pretty front-loaded to me. The front half of that 18-game slate contains both matchups with USF, their meeting with Memphis, hosting Cincy, and trips to Houston and Wichita State. pic.twitter.com/ds8k8dGQzv— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) September 20, 2019
Injuries have kept South Florida from being as good as expected, but SMU and certainly Wichita State have been stronger than anticipated. And although the Cincinnati Bearcats have been up and down, they were definitely up to play Tulsa on Wednesday night, poleaxing the Golden Hurricane by 31.
So. all UCF needs to do to get in the win column in conference is knock off the reigning AAC Player of the Year, Jarron Cumberland, right after his best performance of the year. See you from inside Additional Financial Arena at noon Saturday. The game will be aired on ESPN2
“We have to fight our way back into the light right now,” Dawkins said. “We’ve dug a hole for ourselves, but we have time to dig our way out.”