C.J. Kelly scored a career-high 30 points and Taylor Hendricks chipped in with 12 points and five rebounds as the UCF Knights fended off a late run for a 64-61 win at East Carolina. The Knights are now 11-4 on the season and 2-1 in The American.
The game marked the return of Brandon Suggs, who transferred from ECU to UCF. Suggs scored one point and grabbed five rebounds in his return.
Here are my three thoughts on the game:
1. C.J. Kelly Carried The Offense
“We’ve gotta scrap. These road games are never easy” pic.twitter.com/TXjByNmnq8— UCF Men’s Hoops (@UCF_MBB) January 5, 2023
Kelly was as spectacular as he was efficient. He scored 30 of the Knights’ 64 points on 9/13 shooting from the field, including 4/6 from the 3-point line.
Kelly also went 8/10 from the free throw line, including 4/5 down the stretch to hold off the Pirates.
Prior to Kelly, the last Knight to score 30 points in a game was Brandon Mahan, who scored 32 in UCF’s upset win at No. 15 Florida State on Dec. 19, 2020.
2. Magic Number: 65
The Knights gave up fewer than 65 points in a game for the 10th time in 15 games on Wednesday night. That’s only one game off of when the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 teams did it in 14 games. Those two teams would end up making the NIT Tournament (2017) and the NCAA Tournament (2019).
UCF is now 10-0 this season when giving up fewer than 65 points. The Knights held East Carolina to 61 points on 35% shooting from the field. In contrast, The Knights are 1-4 on the season when giving up more than 65 points.
That is also similar to 2017 and 2019 teams. The 2017 team went 18-5 when giving up less than 65 points, and 6-7 when giving up more than 65.
The 2019 team went 19-2 when giving up less than 65 points and 5-7 when they gave up more.
This begs the question...
3. Is UCF an NCAA Tournament Contender?
Normally the first week of January is way too early to talk NCAA Tournament chances, but since some of you are now starting to follow the team with football season over, let’s help you catch up with where UCF stands.
The Knights came into Wednesday's game ranked 48th in the NET Rankings. That puts them right on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Their marquee win to date is over Oklahoma State, whose NET ranking is 33, for a Quad 1 win. UCF’s second-best win is their road win at Ole Miss, who is ranked 91st. UCF needs the Rebels to finish in the top 75 to get credit for a Quad 1 win.
The bad news is UCF will likely not have many chances to add more marquee wins. As of today, UCF only has three games left against teams in the NET Top 60: a home game with Houston (Jan. 25) who is ranked first, and two games with Memphis who is 59th. In comparison, the Knights have seven games against teams ranked 150 or lower, including this Sunday’s home game vs. SMU.
The good news is UCF is playing good basketball right now, with three of their four losses coming against top-25 ranked teams, including a hard-fought 71-65 loss this past Saturday at Houston. The American seems to be wide open after Houston.
The opportunity is there for UCF to make some noise the rest of the season if it avoids injuries, which was not the case on Wednesday night, as Darius Johnson injured his ankle and did not play down the stretch. Hopefully it is nothing serious, as the Knights’ margin for error in resume and the outlook of making noise in the conference would be greatly impacted.