Chemistry Key for the Golden Knights

by Doug Richards

Mike O'Donnell noticed it immediately. This year's UCF men's basketball team was different.

The junior point guard quickly learned during the Golden Knights' voluntary summer workouts that his squad was dedicated to working together and improving as a team. O'Donnell witnessed unselfish acts that he rarely saw the previous season: Golden Knights making the extra pass in pickup games, players offering encouragement to teammates during drills and leadership from both veterans and newcomers.

"This was the best summer as far as team-oriented basketball that I have ever been a part of," said O'Donnell, who averaged 8.3 points and four assists a year ago in his first season with the Golden Knights after transferring from NC State. "From day one, guys came in with a great mindset and good attitudes. I really feel that will carryover into the season."

In 2005-06, UCF was inconsistent in its first year in Conference USA. The team finished the season 14-15 overall and 7-7 in the league, good for fifth place.

The Golden Knights had some big wins as they played in a much tougher conference after moving from the Atlantic Sun. Victories at Houston and against UTEP were huge, but losses at SMU and Marshall were setbacks for head coach Kirk Speraw's squad. Consider 2005-06 a learning experience for UCF.

"We learned that we have to play our best each and every night," said Speraw. "The players in this league are more athletic and more gifted. The league is very deep and you cannot take a night off."

UCF opens the regular season on Nov. 15, hosting cross-town foe Rollins. This year will mark the program's final campaign at the UCF Arena as the squad will move into the new Convocation Center in the fall of 2007.

Eight letterwinners are back from last season's squad, most notably senior forward Josh Peppers. An all-conference candidate, Peppers is one of the top offensive players in C-USA. He averaged 13.7 points per contest a year ago and needs just 66 points to become the 13th 1,000-point scorer in program history. A strong outside shooter, Peppers connected on 59 3-pointers and shot 36.9 percent from deep.

During UCF's offseason workouts, Peppers, along with senior forward Lavell Payne, was often seen instructing and encouraging younger teammates during drills and pickup games. The 2006-07 roster features five newcomers and seven fresh faces when including juniors Mike Battle and Jacob Loucks, who both redshirted last year.

Payne, who is expected to start at power forward now that Anthony Williams has departed, has impressed O'Donnell with his leadership skills.

"Lavell has a new approach this season," said O'Donnell. "He has been more aggressive and understands his new role as a senior."

One newcomer who will certainly gain the attention of UCF's opponents is junior center Stanley Billings. At six-foot-11, the junior college transfer will give the Golden Knights a legitimate presence in the middle. Last year as a sophomore at Independence Community College in Kansas, he averaged 13.9 points, nine rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game.

In addition to his impressive size, Billings also brings a unique maturity to the program. The Orlando native graduated from Oak Ridge High School, where he did not play basketball, in 1996. He started playing the game while in the Marines, where he spent eight years as a food service specialist.

Speraw says that despite the fact that Billings is 10 years older than some of the Golden Knights, the ex-Marine had no problem bonding with his new teammates.

"Stanley is very mature and has experienced some things that the rest of our guys could never imagine. What impresses me is that he has become a true part of this team," said Speraw. "He is open to learning more about the game and listens to instruction from both his coaches and teammates."

In 2005-06, Justin Rose was the team's top all-around player, averaging 10.5 points and 5.7 boards per contest as a senior at shooting guard. With Rose now gone, a new starter must emerge at the position.

Junior Dave Noel, sophomore Jermaine Taylor and Battle will all compete for the starting spot during preseason practice. As a rookie last year, Taylor appeared in all 29 games and averaged 4.3 points while impressing the coaching staff with this leaping and rebounding ability.

Noel played in 28 contests as a reserve point guard last season, but is now back at his natural position and is hoping to start alongside O'Donnell in the backcourt. An accurate 3-point shooter, Battle did not play in 2005-06 due to a leg injury. Two years ago, he helped guide Paris Junior College in Texas to the national junior college championship.

According to Speraw, chemistry will be the key for the Golden Knights this season. The coach hopes that his players' positive attitudes and unselfishness that were clearly evident during the offseason translate into victories once UCF begins the regular season slate.

"We have a group of young men who have worked hard over the summer and are continuing to work hard this fall," he said. "They have a great rapport and that should pay dividends for us during the long season."