The UCF Knights Men’s Basketball team enters Big 12 play with a 9-3 record. They open conference play this Saturday at Kansas State, which will be the first of five games against teams projected to be in the NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi. The Knights were picked last in the Big 12 preseason poll. So what can UCF do to give themselves a chance to compete in the number one conference in College Basketball?
Let’s break down four things the Knights must do to have a chance to surprise in the Big 12:
1. Strength in Numbers
Too many scorers, it’s hard to choose one pic.twitter.com/ICFzF6c9jf— UCF Men’s Hoops (@UCF_MBB) December 30, 2023
UCF Head Coach Johnny Dawkins has used the term “Strength In Numbers” to describe his team this year. Dawkins has his deepest UCF team yet, playing 10-11 guys in a productive rotation.
The Knights are averaging nearly 29 points per game off the bench, which is on pace for the most in the Dawkins era. UCF is 8-1 this season when the bench has scored at least 22 points from the bench while only 1-2 when scoring less than 22 points.
In the nine wins, UCF has averaged 33 points per game off the bench versus just 16 in the three losses.
UCF will not have the better starting five most nights in the Big 12, but perhaps UCF’s strength in numbers with more depth can wear down the opponents who only go six or eight players deep.
2. Hold Opponents Under 40 % Shooting
Hanging our hat on the defensive end pic.twitter.com/8abqDYoMaw— UCF Men’s Hoops (@UCF_MBB) October 18, 2023
UCF is holding opponents this season to 38.6 % shooting from the field which ranks 23rd in the NCAA and 5th in the Big 12.
The Knights will have to keep this pace as UCF is 6-0 this season when holding teams under 40% from the field but only 3-3 when giving up over 40%.
One of the keys to that is the Knights rank first in Big 12 and 16th in the NCAA in blocks per game at 5.6. They have been led by Ibrahima Diallo, who averages 2.25 blocks per game which ranks 1st in Big 12 as well as Omar Payne who chips in over a block per game.
The Knights frontcourt got a boost on December 21st with the season debut of C.J. Walker who has returned from a knee injury after a calendar year of not playing.
3. Win the Battle at the Three-Point Line
In College Basketball, the three-point line decides many games, with UCF being no exception. This season the Knights are shooting 33% from three, making 7.6 per game, which is down from last season (35%, 8.7). UCF is holding opponents to 31% giving up 6.3 makes per game which is on par with last season (31%, 6.5).
The Knights are 8-0 this season when they make as many or more 3-pointers as the opponent, while they are 1-3 when losing the 3-point battle.
Let’s break down the three losses:
- At Miami, UCF was outscored by 15 points at the arc, giving up 10 threes where they lost by 16.
- In the loss to Stetson, UCF was outscored by 21 points from the arc, giving up a season-high 13 three-pointers in a game where they lost by three.
- In the loss to Ole Miss, the Knights were outscored by six from the arc in a game where they lost by just two.
UCF shot just 25% from three, averaging only five makes a game in the three losses versus 35% shooting and 8.4 makes per game in the nine wins.
One key player who can help UCF in this category is Jaylin Sellers, who leads the Knights in scoring (18.6 ppg) despite only shooting 25% from long distance, which is way down from last year at Ball State when he shot 45% from three, which ranked 31st in the country.
Hopefully, Sellers has found his stroke from long distance in his last game against Bethune Cookman, as he went 3/6 from three after not hitting a three-pointer in the previous three games.
Two other guys that will be key in the Knights’ perimeter game are Marchelus Avery, who leads UCF in three-point shooting at 45 % with 19 of his 40 field goals made this season coming from three, and Darius Johnson, who leads the Knights with 22 three-pointers made on 37% shooting from long range.
4. Create Easy Buckets
Two ways a basketball team can get easy points is by creating extra possessions by turning teams over and getting offensive rebounds. UCF has been good at doing both.
The Knights are averaging 13.6 offensive rebounds per game which ranks 30th in the NCAA. Offensive rebounds create more possessions and second-chance points for the Knights who average 12.1 second-chance points per game.
UCF is forcing 17 turnovers per game, which ranks 20th in the NCAA. Forcing turnovers creates more opportunities to get easy baskets as the Knights are averaging 19 points off turnovers per game and 13.5 fastbreak points per game, which includes season highs of 37 points in both categories in the win over Bethune-Cookman.
One of the ways the Knights have created turnovers is by averaging 9.8 steals per game which ranks 20th in the NCAA.
All of this has contributed to UCF averaging 78.6 points per game this season, which is on pace for the most in the Dawkins era.
UCF must keep this pace in Big 12 play to have a chance to win in the Big 12 against the strongest competition the program has ever faced. The Knights hope this formula will help give them a chance to surprise in the Big 12.