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It’s Time for UCF Men’s Basketball’s Own Come-to-Jesus Moment

With less than a month left in the regular season, it sounds like there is A LOT that’s wrong with the Knights

Photo: Derek Warden

Heading into the UCF Knights’ most recent game Thursday night, I thought the most interesting storyline rested not with them but with their opponent, the Wichita State Shockers.

Wichita State was coming to Orlando as losers of their previous three games and trying to recover from a 33-point defeat to Houston on Feb. 9. The Shockers held an unscheduled practice the next day that can at the very least be described as uncomfortable to start but cathartic by the end.

Head coach Gregg Marshall detailed how players yelled at players, players yelled at coaches in an effort to exorcise the anger, jealousy and whatever else unspoken emotions resided between parties.

“Guys called each other out,” Marshall said.

So it didn’t surprise me that we saw a much more connected Shockers team on Thursday night. I know I’m leaning heavily on a narrative here, but UCF seemed to have caught WSU at a bad time.

The Knights certainly didn’t play well that night. You could see the defensive lapses and some poor, rushed shot attempts. But as the buzzer sounded in the 75-58 loss, my main thought was that Wichita State’s Erik Stevenson was the best player on the floor while UCF died by the same weapon that gave them so much life in wins versus East Carolina and Tulsa — the 3-point ball.

But Johnny Dawkins’ postgame press conference made it clear that there were many more layers to this particular loss. And in doing so, he gave probably the most damning, critical public statements I’ve heard from him.

Dawkins on poor shot selection

‘I thought offensively, we were trying to play too much hero ball. I thought we were trying to go out there and quick shooting shots and quick shooting 3s. That’s not who we’ve been when we’ve been successful.”

“There’s certain guys, when they take those shots, that’s shots, that’s a good thing for us. But it’s not an equal opportunity offense where everyone is just taking those shots. You have to recognize what’s a good shot for you.”

“I just think they got caught up with the last two games where they shot the ball well and the team has shot the ball well that they thought, ‘Hey, we’re just going to do that again.’ That’s not how you play.”

Now, look: Anyone who spent time covering Bobby Knight or John Calipari wouldn’t even blink an eye at these quotes. They are dull by comparison. But for Johnny Dawkins, this qualifies as hot takes. And it’s easy to see whom he is talking about here.

Brandon Mahan took two 3-point shots early the game, both of which occurred just seven seconds into a possession and both of which were misses. Mahan hit the bench at the 14:55 mark of the first half and played about 3 minutes the rest of the night.

— Late in the first half, Tony Johnson Jr. took three shots in the span of 10 seconds. His initial layup attempt was defended well, but he then scrambled back out to the perimeter to launch 3-pointers after two offensive rebounds. Although Johnson had open looks, I think Dawkins wanted him to set up the offense and not get trigger-happy.

Avery Diggs, who had attempted just six 3-pointers on the season, inexplicably lets one fly from deep right as the Knights had constructed a run to draw within 10 points of the Shockers. But that shot at the 12:06 mark halted any UCF momentum, and the Shockers would go on a 12-2 run immediately afterward. Diggs played just 3:27 the rest of the way.

As Dawkins said, his players became too infatuated with the 3 ball after the team hit half of its 44 long-range attempts in two victories leading into Thursday. They lost sight of the fact that, even with that recent success, this squad was shooting just 31.8 percent from deep for the year.

Dawkins on rebounding effort

“Rebounding-wise, I thought they out-muscled us. They were able to get extra shots when they needed them. The rebound total for us is probably the most lopsided total we’ve had this season.”

“[The Shockers] really compete on the boards well. They are one of the best teams in our conference at competing on the boards, and we have to be better at that. To me, that’s the thing that stands out the most from watching video of them and watching them play. It isn’t a special scheme; it’s their effort, their energy going every single time.”

Dawkins is nearly correct about the rebounding margin (minus-17 for UCF on Thursday) being the team’s most lopsided of the season. It is actually tied with one other game: UCF’s loss at Wichita State on Jan. 25, when the Knights were also out-rebounded by 17.

Eric Lopez said on our podcast this past weekend that Wichita State is just a bad matchup for the Knights and that’s one reason why they win on the boards so often. Maybe that’s true — Wichita State also out-rebounded the Knights by 13 in their one meeting last year.

But this is about effort. Dawkins went on to compliment the Shockers on how they attack the glass with ferocity on every possession, game after game. They don’t take any trips off. If there are 60 missed shots, they are going to crash the glass 60 times.

It’s pretty odd that UCF’s effort level would be inadequate in a home game against a recent national power. But Dawkins basically called out his team for exactly that.

Dawkins on lackluster defense

“We lost Stevenson way too many times, where he got great looks, and he’s going to make those. When you spend 3 or 4 days in preparation for that and then go out there and lose sight of where he is, that’s disappointing.”

“We tried to outscore them instead of trying to defend and let the game get away from us in that regard.”

Stevenson was in a prolonged shooting slump entering this game and had been moved out of the starting lineup as a result. But the Knights had to have known coming in, even with his struggles, that he is still one of the American’s premier sharpshooters. He came out on fire, and UCF failed to adjust until it was far too late.

Most disheartening was what happened right after halftime. Stevenson had just scored 17 points in the first 20 minutes. And right out of the long break, he somehow gets two looks from deep where no UCF player is close to him. He, of course, made both 3s.

We know that Dawkins employs a defense-centric style of basketball. It has been his calling card as a head coach, especially at UCF. To see his players somehow keep forgetting to cover a dangerous shooter for whom they game-planned even after a halftime break and after he was already burning up the nets is difficult to explain.

Dawkins on leadership

Nothing Dawkins said caused my eyebrows to raise more than these following statements. After talking about what the Knights didn’t do correctly on offense — ill-advised shots, little ball movement, poor spacing, etc. — he was asked what leads to all of those issues occuring.

That’s leadership. On the court, when you’re out there, who’s taking control of that, making sure that doesn’t happen? When you come to timeouts, [coaches] can say it all we want. But then when you get on that floor, we have to execute that. I think when you have guys out there that are taking ownership of that, that helps. When guys are like, ‘Hey, that’s not a good shot for us out here.’”

Dawkins said he wants to see and hear more of that on-court communication instead of the players waiting for the next timeout to address any concerns.

“Right now, we’re too quiet out there during those moments. No one is stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, that’s not a good one for us. Let’s move the ball more.’ It has to come when we get to the bench. ... It’s disappointing. I’d think we’d have more of that at this time in the season, where guys are stepping into those roles a little bit more. I understand there’s a lot of newness with our guys, but at this time of the season with six games remaining, I would think there would be some guys stepping up with leadership in that regard and just holding guys accountable out there for what we want to have happen.”

I emphasized that last part because it’s Johnny Dawkins basically saying that no player on this team is keeping anyone else accountable for mistakes made during the game. It’s a “wow” moment, considering the speaker.

So, to recap: UCF got out-hustled on its home floor, saw too many of its players play outside of the offensive plan, made the same error over and over again on defense and displayed no on-court leadership.

These might be topics that are discussed after a non-conference game in November, but we are less than one month out from the end of the regular season. Thursday’s loss wasn’t just another L for the Knights; it unearthed problems that go beyond Xs and Os. Yes, they are playing with a bunch of first-year players, but they aren’t new any longer; we’re 24 games into the season. And while this team has experienced a lot of roster turnover, it’s not like this roster is stocked with greenhorns. Players such as Collin Smith, Ceasar DeJesus, Matt Milon and Dazon Ingram are all upperclassmen; if Dawkins is calling for leadership on the floor, it should be coming from those guys.

To think that a heart-to-heart team meeting similar to the one Wichita State held will be a cure-all and propel the Knights on a championship run through the AAC Tournament is beyond irrational.

But considering all of the topics Dawkins discussed Thursday, I would hope something has been done during this six-day window before the Knights tip off at Cincinnati on Wednesday beyond just a prolonged practice session or two.

What led to UCF’s home loss to Wichita State can’t be fixed with a couple of tweaks. When you start talking about leadership and effort, that reaches down into the core of the team. If that doesn’t change soon, the Knights risk seeing what has already been a frustrating season crater into a dumpster-fire of a finish.