Welcoming the Big East Newcomers: Central FloridaPosted by mlemaire on December 13th, 2011
The Big East announced in a teleconference they would be adding five new schools to the fold. Three of those schools, Houston, Central Florida, and Southern Methodist, will play all of their sports in the conference starting in 2013. Of course it is far too early to tell what sort of impact these teams will have in their new conference, but that won’t stop us from pontificating. Last but not least is Central Florida.
The newest of the three teams, Central Florida didn’t field its first basketball team until 1969 and they played as a Division II team until the 1984-85 season. As a Division II school, Central Florida achieved success they haven’t even sniffed since. Legendary coach Eugene “Torchy” Clark built a 274-89 record in his 14 seasons in Orlando. But since making the jump to the ranks of Division I, success has been fleeting. From 1984-93, the team never had a winning record.
Once Kirk Speraw arrived at UCF, the Golden Knights finally got back to winning, albeit inconsistently. There were four Atlantic Sun Tournament Championships, one Atlantic Sun Regular Season Championship and four NCAA Tournament berths during Speraw’s tenure, although the team never made it out of the first round. Since joining Conference USA in 2005, the Golden Knights have had successful teams, but have never been back to the NCAA Tournament. In 2010, the university decided to cut ties with Speraw, its winningest coach of all-time, and they hired Donnie Jones, a young and energetic former coach at Marshall and former assistant to Billy Donovan. Last season the team won 21 games, but they finished just 6-10 and were relegated to the CBI.
The Golden Knights already have one pelt to hang in their trophy closet this year as they beat then-No.4 Connecticut 68-63 in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Unfortunately, they have failed to truly build on that accomplishment. A 23-point early season loss to Florida State can be forgiven because it was the second game of the season, but mustering just 49 points in a loss to Harvard the day after they beat UConn is a tougher pill to swallow. The good news for Jones and the Golden Knights is that the team is as talented as it has been in a long time.
Juniors Keith Clanton and Marcus Jordan are the team’s unquestioned leaders and also their best all-around players. Clanton is an undersized but strong power forward with a lot of athleticism and surprising shooting range. Jordan is an excellent defender, rebounder, and an improving scorer. There is also reason to be excited about sophomores Isaiah Sykes and Tristan Spurlock. Sykes still needs to work on protecting the ball, but the sophomore is averaging 12 points and nearly seven rebounds per game. And Spurlock, a transfer from Virginia, is averaging 9.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in just 26 minutes of playing time per game.
Frankly, there is a lot of talent and depth on Jones’ current roster. It’s probably not enough to unseat Memphis as the king of the conference, but they should give the Tigers are run for their money and if they get really lucky and beat the Tigers once or twice, there is a possibility they could earn an at-large bid despite their cupcake conference schedule.
Unlike Houston and SMU, Donnie Jones has a deep local talent pool to draw from. There are definitely talented players to be had all over the Sunshine State, but Orlando isn’t exactly a hotbed for local talent, nor is it a particularly impressive destination city for recruits who might be swayed by the bright lights of a big city. That said, UCF has Jones, and the man is an energetic recruiter who has already scored a number of big-time commitments during his time. Almost everyone remembers the Kevin Ware scandal in which news outlets alleged that someone steered the highly recruited Georgia star into conversations with Jones, which will leave the coach suspended for three conference games this season.
But Jones has proven he doesn’t need sketchy recruiting ties to lure top talent. Indianapolis big man Michael Chandler committed to the Golden Knights last year and recently reaffirmed his commitment as he spends a year at prep school and coupled with Rivals150 center Staphon Blair, Jones has built quite a talented young frontcourt. The point is, Jones can recruit, and now he gets to use national exposure as a selling point as well.