Building on Experience

Nov. 14, 2008

The first year of the Joi Williams era could be described as a learning experience for everyone involved. With a brand-new coaching staff and 10 freshmen with no collegiate playing experience, it came as no surprise that there was a lot to learn.

"It was definitely a learning process for all of us," said Williams. "For me, I had so much to learn about the program, the school and the product I was selling in UCF. For the 10 freshmen who had not played at this level, we had a lot to teach them both on and off the court."

With freshmen playing a nation-leading 91 percent of the Knights' minutes, UCF finished the season 10-20 overall and 3-13 in Conference USA play.

"[The freshmen] were overwhelmed at times, but they never quit, and that was big for us," said Williams. "The positive side of that was that they gained so much experience.

"The flip side was the lack of experience made us come up short sometimes in the win-loss column because we did not know how to win in certain situations."

While the results were not overwhelming, the progress was evident. It was the program's first double-digit win season in three years, and the Knights increased their scoring average by over 10 points per contest.

"In terms of our play, we definitely learned a lot last year, and we improved in several statistical categories," said Williams. "If you look at our record, 10 wins does not really reflect everything we accomplished. With the experience we gained, we will be in a better position to close out games we fell short in last year."

The freshmen are now sophomores, and, along with two transfers with Division I experience, give the 2008-09 roster a different make-up, not in terms of names as much as maturity.

"We can build on what we learned as opposed to starting from scratch," said Williams. "As freshmen, there were a lot of things that they had never been taught, so we had to do a lot of teaching. Now they have a better understanding of the game, so we do not have to take the baby steps we had to take last year."

Eight sophomores make up the core of Williams' roster, and with the experience gained as freshmen, they may be more advanced and mature than other collegiate sophomores.

"I think because of the amount of minutes that they played, and getting that amount of minutes for so many of them, they have gotten a step ahead on their careers," said Williams. "The good thing is that they know what to expect this year. From a maturity standpoint, I think that their decision making will be a lot better because of that experience."

The Knights are ready to take the next step and build on the growth and progress of 2007-08, and Williams expects that progress to continue as the team looks to change the recent history of the program.

"Obviously when you finish last in the conference, you want to improve that," Williams said. "I really believe that if we can finish in the top half, that would be a tremendous step and improvement for this program. UCF has been in the bottom of the conference since joining the league, and we definitely want to change that. I think this is the year we can do that."

UCF has the philosophy that the improvement in terms of wins and losses starts with the defense.

"Our philosophy is to be aggressive and relentless on the defensive end because we want to create offense with our defense."

Success on the defensive end will enhance what Williams says is the team's biggest strength, running the floor offensively.

The Knights will employ the same run-and-gun style of offense that helped the 2007-08 squad increase the scoring average by over 10 points from 2006-07.

"The fans are not ever going to see us walk the ball up the court unless we have to," said Williams. "Our focus is to push the ball as hard as we can. I think the crowd likes that, the kids like that and it is a fun style of basketball."

Another area Williams sees as a strength - perimeter depth - will aid the up-tempo style. The Knights have eight players listed as guards on their roster, allowing them to stay fresh on the perimeter for 40 minutes. In terms of the team's potential weaknesses, Williams says despite the experience gained, the Knights are still young.

"I think youth is still a weakness," said Williams. "There are always things with youth where you can grow and get better, and I am sure we might show that youth at times."

The Knights return four starters from 2007-08, including three that averaged in double figures. Sophomore Emma Cannon is the team's leading returning scorer and rebounder after averaging 11.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game as a freshman.

Fellow sophomores Marshay White (11.6 ppg), D'Nay Daniels (10.2 ppg) and Chelsie Wiley (8.3 ppg) are also back as returning starters.

Sophomores Jelisa Caldwell, Angelica Mealing and Jasmine Stovall return and add to the perimeter depth while Leah Paige returns on the inside.

Even with the multiple returning players, Williams still will look to a strong group of newcomers to make an impact.

Two Division I transfers, junior Marcquitta Head and sophomore Amber Kirkpatrick, will add experience in the post.

Head, a 6-foot-4 center, sat out the 2007-08 season after transferring from Georgia State and will be eligible for the opener. Head averaged 9.6 points and 7.7 rebounds in her two-year career.

Kirkpatrick, a 6-foot-2 forward, was a midseason transfer last year from Eastern Kentucky and will be eligible to play in late December. She averaged 8.7 points and 5.8 rebounds as a freshman for the Colonels.

Williams also welcomes three talented freshmen, Racine Davis, Ashia Kelly and Aisha Patrick, to the squad.

"Marcquitta and Amber will be great additions, especially to our inside game," said Williams. "With the three freshmen, our team will have a different look even though we have so many players back."

The Knights have a challenging schedule on which to embark in 2008-09, including non-conference games against teams from eight different conferences and a trip to the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"The non-conference schedule is tough and competitive," said Williams. "We play a lot of different teams from the strong conferences. Our thought process was to really test our kids, allow them to go to some different venues and play in tough environments. Ultimately, the goal is for the non-conference games to prepare us for Conference USA."

After the non-conference slate, the Knights turn their attention to C-USA play.

"Our conference is going to be really competitive this season," said Williams. "For the most part, teams have the majority of their best players returning."

UTEP rolled through C-USA play a season ago with an unblemished 16-0 record, but the Miners lost two players who were selected in the WNBA Draft. Williams sees Southern Miss and East Carolina as the favorites in a wide-open 2008-09 race.

"Southern Miss is the obvious favorite," said Williams. "They have a lot of experience and good players returning. East Carolina has some of the best guards in C-USA, and they have NCAA experience from 2007, so they know what they are playing for. I think Southern Miss and ECU are the teams to beat."

While Williams says finishing in the top half of the standings is a goal, she believes her team is capable of more.

"We want to make some great strides," said Williams. "Not to say we are not capable of winning the league, but we want to take a realistic approach because we are still young. I think finishing in the top half would be a great stride."

Those great strides hinge on the team's depth on the perimeter and talented post players. The coaching staff has been working hard to help the players improve through individual workouts and strength and conditioning.

"I feel good about our perimeter players," said Williams. "With a year of experience under their belts, their decision making should improve. We have every dimension in our perimeter players - players who can defend, players who can get to the rim and players who can shoot the three."

In the post, the additions of Head and Kirkpatrick give the Knights a formidable frontline that can affect the game on both ends of the court.

"I am excited about that group this year because we have players who can finish inside," said Williams. "We have physical players in the post that can finish with contact and do not mind sacrificing their bodies. I really think we have all the right pieces with the posts. They can run the floor and have the potential to be great rebounders."

The pieces are in place for the Knights in 2008-09, and a more experienced UCF team is primed to change the culture.

- Andrew Gavin