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UCF Men’s Basketball Travels to Cincinnati Following a ‘Tough Week’

Rebounding, leadership have been much-discussed topics in recent practices

UCF junior guard Ceasar DeJesus
Photo: Derek Warden

The UCF Knights have spent equal amounts of time looking ahead and looking within this week.

UCF (13-11 overall and 4-8 in the American Athletic Conference) played one of its worst games of the season on Thursday, a 75-58 loss to Wichita State. Head coach Johnny Dawkins pointedly criticized many aspects of his team’s performance afterward, including the Knights’ lack of rebounding effort and on-court leadership.

So, there was plenty for the Knights to address internally beyond their trip to face the Cincinnati Bearcats tonight.

Dawkins admitted Tuesday that his team has had a “tough week” of practice but a fruitful one.

“Our guys have worked really hard and embraced what we’re talking about. That’s what you have to have,” he said.

After falling to the Shockers, Dawkins said his team was too quiet during the game and didn’t communicate enough when one of their teammates made a mistake. This week, he’s been pleased as veterans such as junior guard Ceasar DeJesus and junior forward Collin Smith have brought more of a vociferous presence during practice.

“It’s good to see those guys asserting themselves in a leadership role,” Dawkins said.

DeJesus and Dawkins are both in their fourth season at UCF. No other player is as familiar with what Dawkins wants and requires from his players, so if any Knight needs to speak up, DeJesus knows it should probably be him.

“I’m the oldest dude on our team, so I’ve got to lead by example somehow. I’ve been here the longest, so I know what Coach expects from us and from his point guard,” he said. “I’m just trying to be out there to guide the young players as best I can and just be as vocal as I can.

“There’s a lot of other things I say that I really can’t say on camera, but they know. They know what I’m talking about.”

Beyond communication, Dawkins added that rebounding has been a focal point since Thursday. UCF was out-rebounded by 17 against the Shockers, and its rebounding margin over the past five games is minus-42. The Knights are allowing an offensive rebound on 31.7% of their opponents’ missed shots in conference play, the highest percentage among AAC teams.

As they prepare for this rematch, UCF is also well aware that Cincinnati won the battle on the boards, 34-22, when these squads met in Orlando on Jan. 11.

“Every game, we’ve been getting out-rebounded by other teams. Younger teams, too,” DeJesus said. “We’ve got to approach that with more of a sense of urgency as well.”

Added Dawkins: “We have to embrace the physicality and the type of game it’s going to be. And our guys have prepared themselves well this week.”

The Bearcats (17-8 overall and 10-3 in the AAC) have been on a roll since a 10-7 start that included surprising losses to Bowling Green, Colgate and Tulane. They have triumphed in seven of their past eight contests, the last three of which have all gone into overtime, and they now sit in first place in the conference.

Cincinnati is 11-1 at home this season and 12-2 in the all-time series versus UCF, including a 68-54 victory last month.

But Dawkins is indeed looking forward to seeing how his team performs in this tough matchup and after a trying week.

“I’m excited to see us bounce back,” he said. “I didn’t think we played our best basketball by no means the last time we were on the floor, and we want to come out and we want to change that around.

“We want to play better. We know we have to.”

Tipoff between the Knights and the Bearcats is scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.

Fuller out for the season

Dawkins said Tuesday that guard Dre Fuller Jr. will undergo surgery related to his lingering groin injury and will miss the rest of the season.

The redshirt freshman has been hampered since December and sat out four conference games in January in an effort to get back to full health. Fuller returned to action on Jan. 29 versus Memphis and played in the past four games but made just 2 of 10 baskets during that time.

The Knights’ best on-ball perimeter defender, Fuller averaged 6.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and nearly 1 steal over 19.1 minutes per game. Guard Brandon Mahan is likely to pick up most of those minutes.