Rest in Peace: Central Florida Knights EditionPosted by Mike Lemaire on February 5th, 2014
Although we aren’t even halfway through the AAC schedule, the herd of NCAA Tournament contenders has thinned considerably and there are some teams whose prospects of playing in any meaningful postseason tournament are already dead in the water. We are gathered here today to celebrate their brief turn in the conference conversation.
Why are we mourning UCF?
The Knights have exactly one half-decent win this season and that was a late November triumph over a mediocre Miami (FL) team. Their next best win is a two-point home victory over Temple that came in the beginning of January and also serves as their only conference win thus far. The rest of the team’s wins are almost too embarrassing to mention. They have a win over Division II Tampa and a win over NAIA school Rio Grande, and then they have four wins over teams that rank 300th or below in KenPom’s team rankings.
In fact, since beating the Owls, the Knights have lost their next six games by no fewer than 10 points (albeit against the cream of the conference crop for the most part), and they probably won’t be the favorite in more than one or two games the rest of the way. It’s true that the Knights had to replace one of the best big men in school history when Keith Clanton graduated, but they returned every other meaningful contributor from a 20-11 squad. No one expected the Knights to take their new and better conference by storm, but most expected them to field a competitive team. Unfortunately, the roster has been too weak and the team has been too inefficient on both ends of the floor to make that happen.
They currently sit at 9-10 (1-7 AAC) and while the schedule gets decidedly less formidable from here on out, it is safe to say that the NCAA Tournament and probably the NIT are both out of reach. It seems possible for the team to beat up on their fellow bottom-dwellers and perhaps steal a game from a better team to find itself in the CBI discussion, but that seems like one of those moral victories that the team wouldn’t be too excited about.
How did they end up here?
If they weren’t such an excellent offensive rebounding team, they would quite easily boast the least efficient offense in the country. Fortunately for them, South Florida’s offense is so appalling that the Knights’ offensive struggles can be nicely swept under the rug. Their issues on offense start with the fact that nearly 60 percent of the team’s possessions are being used by Isaiah Sykes and Calvin Newell, a duo who also happen to be the team’s least efficient regulars. Sykes deserves the benefit of the doubt because he is clearly the team’s best player and the focal point of opposing defenses, but Newell’s effective field goal percentage is barely above 40 percent and if he wasn’t such a productive ball thief, it would be hard to make the argument that he deserves any playing time at all.
As a team, the numbers are hardly better. They aren’t a good shooting team to begin with, but they happen to be particularly awful from downtown (32.3% 3FG) and the free throw line (60.4% FT). In fact, only three teams in the entire country are worse from the charity stripe than the Knights, which is borderline inexcusable for a major conference program. They also turn the ball over at a rather prolific rate; they fail to get to the line nearly as often as they should; and they struggle creating points by moving the ball. If it wasn’t for their excellent offensive rebounding, they wouldn’t even qualify as mediocre in any offensive category, which never helps when trying to win games.
This team should be much better defensively because of its size and athleticism at every spot on the floor, but they aren’t much more efficient there either. They don’t force many turnovers; they let opponents shoot better than 50 percent on two-point field goal attempts; and they don’t protect the rim very well at all. Opponents don’t really bother with shooting three-pointers and getting to the line because they already score so easily from inside the arc. It might be unfair to blame head coach Donnie Jones for the entirety of his team’s defensive shortcomings, but playing a lineup with at least four players who are 6’6″ and relatively athletic should mean that the Knights are a defensive match-up problem. Instead they are just a sieve.
How quickly can they be resurrected?
Jones is about to finish his fourth season at the helm of the Knights, and he signed a five-year contract extension in June, so it would seem like his future in Orlando is safe for now. But after winning 20 games in each of his first three seasons at UCF, thing have been much more difficult this year and the immediate future doesn’t look particularly bright. The team’s three leading scorers all graduate at the end of the season, and with the exception of Kasey Wilson and maybe Matt Williams, there isn’t a lot of young talent waiting in the wings. Sykes does a bit of everything for the Knights, so he will be missed the most. Newell isn’t a great offensive player, but he is a steady hand at the point and an impact on-ball defender. Tristan Spurlock is a burly wing, the team’s most efficient scorer and second-leading rebounder, so he will be sorely missed as well.
The only two incoming recruits thus far are local products Adonys Henriquez and B.J. Taylor. Henriquez is a prize that Jones wrestled away from a number of high-major programs including UConn, Florida and Miami, and Taylor will help out with backcourt depth. It’s not a terrible recruiting class, but it’s not a program-changing group either. And to make matters worse, the class of 2015 has already seen a pair of high-profile local recruits decommit in the past six months. Jones probably deserves a little bit more time to adjust to the conference before his seat starts getting warm, especially on the heels of that new contract, but things are likely going to get worse at UCF before they get better.