2006-07 UCF Men's Basketball Season Outlook

Oct. 25, 2006

2006-07 UCF Men's Basketball Season Outlook

When Conference USA announced its 2005-06 preseason poll and the Golden Knights were selected to finish fifth in the league, UCF head coach Kirk Speraw was surprised. It wasn't that Speraw doubted that his team could finish fifth in the 12-team conference, it was the fact the Golden Knights were coming into the new-look league from the Atlantic Sun Conference.

The Golden Knights had dominated the A-Sun, winning back-to-back conference championship titles and earning trips to the NCAA Tournament prior to leaving the league. Now, Speraw's team would be playing tradition-rich programs like Houston, Memphis, Tulsa, UAB and UTEP on a nightly basis. Succeeding in the new league was not going to be an easy task.

After UCF finished its inaugural year in C-USA with a 7-7 mark, good for fifth place, it turns out that both the coaches who selected the preseason poll and Speraw were correct.

The Golden Knights had some big wins as they played in a much tougher league, but they also faltered at times during key league games. Victories at Houston and against UTEP were huge, but losses at SMU and Marshall were setbacks for the team. Consider 2005-06 a learning experience for the UCF basketball program.

"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 and we are playing against better opponents on a nightly basis. The league is very deep and you cannot take a night off."

There will be no surprises this year. Speraw's team now knows what to expect in C-USA and the league is now aware of the Golden Knights.

UCF returns eight letterwinners from last season's squad that went 14-15 overall. Three starters are back, most notably senior forward Josh Peppers and junior guard Mike O'Donnell. An all-conference candidate, Peppers is one of the top offensive players in C-USA. The small forward averaged 13.7 points per game a year ago and is the third-leading returning scorer in the league. O'Donnell started all 29 games last season and should be one of the top point guards in the conference.

Speraw expects both players to provide leadership. Both Peppers and O'Donnell will need to show their younger teammates - there are five newcomers on the roster - what it takes to win in C-USA.

A Challenging Conference Slate
Winning in league play will be no easy task for the Golden Knights as UCF will face the toughest league schedule in school history in 2006-07. The team opens league play at 2006 NCAA Tournament participant UAB as four of the squad's first six C-USA contests are away from home.

The opening stretch includes contests at Houston and UTEP. Both the Cougars and Miners played in the postseason NIT last year. The slate remains tough when the team is at home. The Golden Knights host SMU, Rice and Memphis in January. SMU and Rice are expected to be two of the most improved squads in the league and Memphis will again be one of the premier teams in the nation in 2006-07. The Tigers narrowly missed the Final Four in 2006, falling to UCLA in the Elite Eight.

"Our conference schedule will be much more difficult than last year. This is by far the toughest conference schedule that I have faced at UCF," said Speraw, who is entering his 14th season at the helm of the Golden Knights. "Starting C-USA play with four of six on the road and facing many of the top teams in the league in January will be a challenge for our team, but one that we are excited about."

Last season, the Golden Knights had to adapt to a new travel schedule. A-Sun bus trips to Jacksonville and Atlanta were replaced by long flights to Dallas and Houston.

A new travel challenge awaits this year. The squad will have to contend with back-to-back games away from home on three occasions during the conference schedule. UCF will have to deal with this scheduling quirk to start the season, as the squad plays at UAB on Wednesday, Jan. 10 and then faces Marshall in West Virginia on Saturday, Jan. 13.

"Those back-to-back road trips are difficult," said Speraw. "They do not give you much time to prepare for the next game and the travel is tough. These are the kind of challenges that you face during the conference schedule and hopefully our guys will be prepared to handle the difficult back-to-back games on the road."

Depth in the Backcourt
In his first season with the Golden Knights a year ago, O'Donnell was reliable and consistent at point guard. A transfer from NC State, he averaged 8.3 points and four assists in 31 minutes a game. He was the only UCF player to start all 29 contests.

His 2.30 assist/turnover ratio ranked second in C-USA. O'Donnell proved that he could connect from 3-point range, shooting 37.1 percent from deep. In the Golden Knights' win in the regular-season finale against UTEP, he tied a school record by connecting on all six of his 3-point attempts.

Although he spent the 2004-05 campaign practicing with the team, O'Donnell did not immediately look comfortable running the Golden Knights at the start of the last season. He scored over 15 points in a game four times last year and three of those performances were in league play. Speraw expects O'Donnell to be the squad's floor general this year from the start.

"Mike is going to be much more comfortable this year as the point guard. He played very well at the end of last season, especially in February," said Speraw. "He played with more confidence and shot the ball with more confidence. Now he has a better understanding of what we expect from him day in and day out. Mike has always led by example, but I expect him to be more vocal and really guide the team."

Last season O'Donnell was forced to log major minutes at point guard. As a result of the team's lack of depth at the position, he played at least 35 minutes in 12 contests. In the Golden Knights' inaugural C-USA victory at Houston, he was on the court for the entire game.

Help for O'Donnell has arrived. Chip Cartwright, a transfer from Angelina College in Texas, is a true point guard who will serve as O'Donnell's backup. As a sophomore last season, Cartwright averaged 14.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists. Following the regular season, he was a National Junior College Athletic Association All-America Honorable Mention selection.

Cartwright offers a different style when compared to O'Donnell, who is often content firing from 3-point range. The Houston, Texas native is a playmaker who can break down defenses and distribute the ball to open teammates.

"Chip is a great point guard. He is great at delivering the basketball to his teammates and setting them up," said Speraw. "From a perimeter standpoint, we lacked that a year ago. We did not have enough people who could break down the defense and get into the paint to create scoring opportunities for their teammates. Chip has that ability."

A pair of players - sophomore Drew Speraw and freshman Taylor Young - will provide depth behind O'Donnell and Cartwright at point guard. Speraw played in 17 games in 2005-06, averaging 1.4 minutes per contest. He appeared in seven C-USA games.

Young earned Florida Class 2A Player of the Year honors at The First Academy in Orlando last year. He averaged 25 points, 5.7 assists and 3.4 steals as a senior and will spend the year learning UCF's system.

A year ago Justin Rose did it all for the Golden Knights from the shooting guard position. As a senior, he was the squad's second-leading scorer at 10.5 points per game and despite standing just 6-foot-3, paced UCF in rebounding, averaging 5.7 boards per contest. That mark ranked 13th in the conference. Rose is now gone and a new starter must emerge at the position and attempt to replace Rose's all-around effort.

Sophomore Jermaine Taylor is the most likely of three candidates to win the starting job. The top athlete on the team, he has impressed the coaching staff with his leaping and rebounding ability. Last year, he appeared in all 29 games as a rookie and averaged 4.3 points and 2.2 rebounds in 11.7 minutes per contest.

Taylor showed great improvement as the season progressed. He averaged 5.1 points in league play and had his top performance against Houston at home, recording 16 points versus the Cougars. Speraw expects Taylor to have a bigger role this year.

"Jermaine made that tough transition from high school to Division I basketball last year," he said. "Now he just has to take it to another level. I really think he has the mental makeup and certainly has the talent to really contribute to the team."

Taylor will be competing with juniors Dave Noel and Mike Battle to replace Rose. Noel, a true shooting guard, played in 28 games as a reserve point guard last season. A great rebounder for his size (2.4 per game in 2005-06), he did not appear totally comfortable running the team and will now return to his natural position.

"Shooting guard is more of a natural position for Dave," said Speraw. "He is more comfortable there and can really contribute at shooting guard and do some of the things that can help our team win."

An accurate 3-point shooter, Battle did not play last year due to a tibia injury. He has not played since the 2004-05 season, when he helped guide Paris Junior College (Texas) to the NJCAA Division I title.

"Mike brings an intelligence to the court," said Speraw. "He understands how to play the game. We are hopeful that he can be a very good defender, because he has good instincts. Of course, he needs to be healthy."

Options Up Front
Big things are expected out of Peppers. The small forward needs only 66 points to become the 13th 1,000-point scorer in UCF history and will again be the Golden Knights' main scoring option.

Last season he recorded double figures in scoring 21 times. A strong outside shooter, he connected on 59 3-pointers and shot 36.9 percent from deep.

He averaged 12.5 points in league action, but struggled in some of the team's biggest games. Speraw expects his star player to make the same kind of jump from his junior to senior year that former Golden Knight Dexter Lyons experienced. Lyons averaged 9.8 points as a junior in 2002-03 and then averaged 18.3 points the following year as he led UCF to the NCAA Tournament.

"He (Josh) needs to be more focused and bring more energy," said Speraw. "He must improve his skills and show more leadership. Josh will agree that his junior year did not go as well as he would have liked and we really need him to have an outstanding senior season."

Speraw will have options up front as Peppers might also see time at power forward. Freshman Tony Davis also has the ability to play at either forward spot. An athletic player from Sarasota, he was the named the Florida Class 6A Player of the Year in 2005-06. Davis finished third in the voting for the Florida Dairy Farmers Mr. Basketball award. He led Riverview High School in scoring at 20.7 points per game.

Davis averaged 12.2 rebounds and had 54 blocked shots. He showed his versatility during the Golden Knights' offseason workouts and will need to continue to develop into a defensive stopper in order to earn playing time as a freshman.

Another rookie, Andre Thornton from Memphis, will also compete for time at forward. A strong, intelligent player, Thornton held his own competing against larger post players over the summer.

Junior Jacob Loucks, a transfer from the University of Mobile, sat out last season due to NCAA rules. Now eligible, he provides Speraw with another option at small forward. Loucks is an accurate shooter who can take the ball to the basket as well.

After two seasons with the Golden Knights, power forward Anthony Williams graduated, creating a void at the position. Williams averaged 9.3 points and 5.2 boards a year ago.

Senior Lavell Payne made 11 starts, mostly at center, last season and showed improvement in summer workouts. Payne shot 51.1 percent from the floor and averaged 4.3 points each contest in 2005-06. Payne was aggressive in getting to the basket during offseason workouts and will see most of his time at power forward.

Junior Adam Gill and sophomore Kenrick Zondervan will provide depth at both power forward and center. Gill made 15 starts last year and averaged 2.8 points and 1.9 rebounds.

More is expected this season out of Zondervan. A native of Holland, he appeared in 18 games last season, including five in league action. He spent his freshman season learning UCF's system and getting comfortable with playing basketball in America.

The Golden Knights will have a legitimate presence at center this season. At six-foot-11, junior-college transfer Stanley Billings will man the middle. Billings comes to UCF from Independence Community College in Kansas. Last year as a sophomore, he averaged 13.9 points, nine rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game.

Billings will give the Golden Knights a defensive stopper in the paint. For every shot that he blocks, Billings alters two or three.

"I think Stanley brings a presence in the interior that we have not had," said Speraw. "He changes shots and makes people miss even if he does not block their shot. He is a strong rebounder as well."

In addition to his impressive size, Billings also brings a unique maturity to the Golden Knights. 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 chef.