Men's Basketball Off to a Running Start

Jan. 18, 2007

by Doug Richards

Mike O'Donnell knows that no one is going to confuse this year's edition of the UCF men's basketball team with the Phoenix Suns. The Golden Knights are not exactly a run-and-shoot team like the NBA's Suns, but their up-tempo offense this season has pleased O'Donnell and his teammates.

Through the squad's first five contests this year - all victories - UCF is averaging 83.4 points. The Golden Knights have scored at least 80 points in five games and just missed the century mark, posting 99 points in a drubbing of visiting Jacksonville.

Head coach Kirk Speraw's squad is scoring early and often and is looking to push the tempo. In 2005-06, UCF averaged just over 63 points, but now the Golden Knights are running more often and scoring on the fast break.

UCF's transition offense starts with O'Donnell. The junior point guard is getting the ball down the floor quickly and is especially enjoying his team's new style of play.

"It is more fun and allows for more opportunities for fast break dunks," said O'Donnell. "If we can get easy buckets like that, we will take them. It is a lot more fun to play that way."

A year ago, the Golden Knights were deliberate in their offense, passing the ball around the top of the key until O'Donnell, forward Josh Peppers or guard Justin Rose created enough space to hoist up a shot from the perimeter. UCF eclipsed the 80-point mark just once last season. The squad's strongpoint was its defense.

The team's depth this campaign has allowed Speraw to alter his offense. Through five games to start the season, 11 players are averaging over 10 minutes per contest and Peppers, one of two seniors on the squad, leads the Golden Knights in minutes per game at just 24.6.

"We are trying to push it more because our personnel allows us to do it," said Speraw. "This team is fun to watch. We are playing hard, competing hard and playing unselfish basketball."

Lavell Payne and Kenrick Zondervan have done their part to help the team run. The two big men have been the recipients of quick passes from O'Donnell and reserve point guard Chip Cartwright and have been finishing the fast breaks with crowd-pleasing dunks.

The speed and athleticism that Payne and Zondervan, plus backup forwards Tony Davis, Jacob Loucks and Andre Thornton, posses has made running the break easy for O'Donnell.

"It is great; I just get the outlet pass and I know the posts are going to be running," said O'Donnell. "Our posts are a lot faster than last year. When I turn and look, the first thing that I am looking for is one of our posts outrunning the opposing team's posts down the floor."

The post players are not the only Golden Knights finishing on the fast break. Although he has done most of his damage from 3-point range this year, Jermaine Taylor is always a threat in transition. The sophomore guard is the team's top athlete and has been on the receiving end of several lob passes this season.

Taylor opened the campaign with 26 points against Rollins and followed that performance with 23 points in the win over Stetson. As a freshman in 2005-06, his season-high was 16 points. With last year's offensive system in place, it would have been difficult for Taylor to light-up the scoreboard as he has this season.

UCF's quicker personnel is not the only reason for the increase in offense. The Golden Knights have been stronger on the defensive end and that is translating into points on the other side of the court.

The Golden Knights limited two of their first five opponents to fewer than 50 points and held Florida Tech to a mere 37 points in a 44-point victory. UCF is recording more blocks and steals, which helps O'Donnell and Cartwright get the ball down the floor in a hurry.

"I think the thing that is causing the more up-tempo play is that our defense is a lot better," said O'Donnell. "Our defense is more active on the ball and on the helpside."

Cartwright has also helped the new-look offense thrive. The junior college transfer immediately looks to push the ball after receiving an outlet pass and has already wowed UCF's fans with his passing ability on the fast break. The Houston, Texas native has even impressed his head coach.

"In the open court, he is fun to watch," said Speraw.

From a coach whose teams are usually known for their defense, that is quite a compliment.