John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF Excited About Conference Play

Jan. 8, 2010

By John Denton

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A UCF men's basketball team that opened with an impressive 6-1 start to the season and then limped through the holidays with a frustrating 2-5 stretch gets to start anew on Saturday with the arrival of Conference USA play.

When UCF (8-6) hosts Rice (6-8) at 5 p.m. on Saturday at UCF Arena it will give the Knights a chance to send a message to Conference USA that it can again get back to playing like the team that whipped Auburn and UMass early in the season. UCF coach Kirk Speraw said the struggles of late have shaken the confidence of his team somewhat, but it is looking forward to Saturday's chance to revive things in conference play.

``Anytime you start the conference schedule it's like a season in unto itself and everybody starts out 0-0,'' Speraw said. ``If you're winning, you use it temper it with the fact that you have to start over again. And if you're struggling, it's a fresh start for you. Everything starts anew for us and we're really looking forward to it.''

UCF has won its C-USA opener each of the past three seasons and is hoping to do the same on Saturday before a large crowd at UCF Arena. The second-largest basketball crowd in school history (8,727) witnessed the season-opening win against UMass and another 5,216 saw UCF beat Howard earlier in the season. Crowds for the UCF Holiday Classic were solid and the Knights have averaged 5,034 fans in seven home games so far. That number should be enhanced on Saturday by the return of the students from the holiday break.

``I put on my Twitter that we hope to see our UCF fans back,'' said sophomore point guard A.J. Rompza, who is averaging 8.7 points, 3.9 assists and 2.85 steals in 14 games this season. ``People don't understand how much of a boost they give us with their support. When you have 5,000-plus students and fans there, that's a boost. We need that again.''

UCF's struggles of late have come, in part, because it has faced much tougher competition such as Notre Dame, Connecticut and South Florida. But offensive woes have also been an issue. To shake free from those doldrums, Speraw has pushed for standout freshmen Keith Clanton and Marcus Jordan to be more aggressive offensively.

Clanton, a 6-foot-8 power forward from Orlando, has the second-best shooting percentage on the team (51.1 percent) and has gotten the third-most shot attempts. He's averaging 8.8 points, a number Speraw would like to see rise.

``We need Keith. He has a tendency to be too unselfish,'' Speraw said. ``We want Keith to take the good looks when they come. That will improve his driving lanes more. Just be aggressive, assertive and attack when the defense gives him opportunities.''

Jordan, has showed tremendous progress as the season has gone on. He missed six weeks of work prior to preseason drills because of a knee condition, but he's gotten better as his timing and familiarity with his new teammates has increased.

Jordan has been at his best against the best competition, scoring a career-best 13 points against Ole Miss and UConn, while tallying 11 versus USF and nine on four-of-four shooting against Notre Dame.

Oddly, Jordan has averaged 8.4 points on 55 percent shooting on the road, but just 2.4 points and 29 percent shooting at UCF Arena. He's hoping those numbers change on Saturday against Rice.

``Me and coach, we've talked about it. I'm just trying to provide that spark coming off the bench,'' Jordan said. ``I just want to give us that next gear and kick it into overdrive.''

Jordan and Clanton said coaches and older teammates have talked to them about how the intensity in Conference USA ramps up compared to non-conference games. Both are eager for their first experience of playing a C-USA game before a big crowd on Saturday at 5 p.m.

``Coach talked about it the other day being like the start to a new season in conference play. We're trying to come out and play like a different team now and play a full 40-minute game,'' Clanton said. ``My teammates have said (playing in C-USA) is like when we played Auburn and we saw how good they were. Conference play is just as hard as that because everybody comes to play and everybody knows your plays. We'll have to be ready.''

John Denton's Knights Insider appears several times per week on UCFAthletics.com. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.