With a 68-49 win at Tulsa on Sunday, the UCF Knights clinched a sixth straight winning record (16-12) in a normal, non-COVID-shortened season in the Johnny Dawkins era.
To put that in perspective, prior to Dawkins’ arrival, the Knights have had only ten winning seasons since UCF moved to Division I for the 1984-1985 season, and only four winning seasons since joining C-USA for the 2005-2006 season.
While some may not consider that good enough, they do not understand how college basketball works.
More schools care about College Basketball than Football. There are 352 schools currently in Division I Men’s Basketball (which will grow to 358 in the future). 133 schools compete at the FBS level in football. So UCF Basketball competes against more than twice as many programs for a spot in the postseason and recruiting than UCF Football does.
Despite that, Dawkins has gotten UCF to an NIT Final 4 in 2017 (when the Knights were picked to finish at bottom of AAC). UCF’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win (with a tip-in away from beating No. 1 seed Duke and a trip to a Sweet 16) came under Dawkins's watch, with a powerful postgame moment that showed Dawkins’ class, respect, and love for his players going viral.
Dawkins’ impact at UCF is greater off the court in how he represents the university. I am not saying we should throw a parade, or that things cannot be improved or questioned. But consider this:
We all know Football is the money generator at UCF, so it makes sense that they get the biggest piece of the money and resources pie from TV contracts, donations, and more. But can UCF bring in the money to help support the Basketball program, with all the upgrades that are badly needed in facilities, without it being at football’s expense?
That is the challenge UCF has faced since moving up to D-I and will continue to face going into the Big 12, which is the number one conference in Basketball.
UCF’s basketball history of basketball is not great. It was arguably the worst D-I basketball program in the 80s and into the 90s until Kirk Speraw took over and brought the program to respectability in the TAAC/Atlantic Sun Conference.
But the Speraw Era ended with almost no support from the Keith Tribble administration. Tribble brought in Donnie Jones, who won right away at the start but could not maintain that early success as the program was hit with NCAA violations and took a dip shortly after, which contributed to his downfall.
Dawkins and his predecessors have had to deal with multiple challenges and limitations. Former UCF A.D. Danny White, who played Basketball at Notre Dame and brought in Dawkins, could not fix them in the limited time he was here. It is easier said than done and I don’t envy the A.D.’s job on things like this. Yet Dawkins has continued to win consistently despite having a lower Men’s Basketball budget than every team in The American except ECU and South Florida.
Here's proof that @UCF_MBB is overachieving in the Dawkins Era: I graphed all AAC Men's Hoops teams' Win % from '17-'18 thru '20-'21 against their MBB budgets (per @3MW_CBB from April 2020).— Jeff Sharon (@Jeff_Sharon) February 19, 2022
And wouldn't you know it ... Look who the outlier is. #UCF pic.twitter.com/gUXOL6EiLd
Also consider UCF is in an NBA market, where more casual basketball fans care about the Magic than College Hoops, and that’s in a state where Football is king above all else.
This season, Dawkins got UCF to a winning record despite numerous injuries. I will always believe the Knights would have easily had 20-plus wins and a postseason team if C.J. Walker was on the court, along with Darius Johnson and Michael Durr not having injury-plagued seasons of their own. Except for one game (Miami), we never got to see the full team we were supposed to.
I would love to see what Dawkins can do with actual support and resources instead of what he currently has. Dawkins has never had the big resources at Stanford or UCF that Kelvin Sampson has had at Houston, or Penny Hardaway at Memphis.
By the way, how has Stanford been doing since Dawkins's departure? The Cardinal has made one postseason appearance — in the NIT — and is headed for a fourth non-winning season in the post-Dawkins era:
Stanford under Dawkins (8 seasons):
5 winning seasons (4 with 20+ wins)
One NCAA appearance (2014 Sweet 16)
Two NIT championships
Stanford since Dawkins (7 seasons):
Two winning seasons (one with 20+ wins)
One postseason (2018 NIT)
Zero NCAA appearances
No one knows better what UCF will face in a power conference like the Big 12 than Dawkins.
Dawkins has raised the bar at UCF despite having, in my opinion, the toughest job of any head coach on campus. He has done things at UCF that I never thought I would see UCF accomplish in Basketball since I was a student back in the A-SUN days, when UCF would draw maybe 1,000 fans on a great night at the old arena.
In fact, he has raised it so high that now we are disappointed if we do not make the NCAA Tournament, which I understand, but who the heck outside the program thought we would be in the mix for the NCAA Tournament back in October with essentially a brand new roster? Certainly not any of the college hoops experts who follow the sport.
Dawkins has raised the awareness of UCF Basketball with his name alone, and that is something other coaches cannot do.
That has resulted in him bringing in Taylor Hendricks, who will be a likely future first-round NBA draft pick. At least now Dawkins can sell recruits on playing in the best conference in college basketball with more exposure than the program has ever had before. Dawkins also helped UCF get approval from a conference that prides itself on Hoops along with Football.
37 years ago, I met Johnny Dawkins. I don’t know a better man. Dawkins and Coach K are the reason Duke is what it is today. He’s the most important player in Duke history. But, that’ll all be out the window at 5:15pm! pic.twitter.com/BF4DahFFwT— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) March 24, 2019
Dawkins is as classy of a person I have ever met and covered in sports, and he has made UCF Basketball a better place. It is time we returned the favor.
Here are my three quick thoughts on UCF’s win at Tulsa On Sunday
1. It Has Always Been About Defense
UCF held Tulsa to 49 points on 35% from the field, and held Tulsa to just 14 points in the first half. UCF is now 12-0 when holding opponents to less than 65 points in a game and 12-1 when holding the opponents to under 40 % shooting, with the only loss coming at Houston.
In contrast, UCF is 4-12 when given up more than 65 points and 4-11 when teams shoot over 40%.
2. Taylor Hendricks Was Aggressive
Taylor Hendricks came out aggressively, scoring 14 points in the first half, and finishing with career-high 25 points, plus eight rebounds and two blocks. For the Knights to make some noise in March, Hendricks must have a similarly aggressive approach night in and night out on offense and on the glass.
3. Still Lots To Play For
UCF finishes the regular season with games at Temple on Thursday and at home against ECU on Sunday.
If UCF wins out, they will likely be the 6-seed for the AAC Tournament. That gets you to 18-12 with a 9-9 conference record. 19-20 wins is the number UCF likely has to hit to make the NIT and continue their season beyond the conference tournament.