John Denton's Knights Insider: Jones Takes Stock of First Few Months at UCF

June 4, 2010

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By John Denton

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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Coaches thrive on being in control, and the hectic schedule with which Donnie Jones had to deal with after being named UCF's head basketball coach in late March left him at times feeling in a whirlwind.

He had as little as four days to recruit new players to UCF for next season. And NCAA rules limited his time with UCF's returning players to a couple of hours a week over a three-week period.

But Jones made the best of a challenging situation, implementing a new up-tempo system with UCF's returning players, putting together a solid recruiting base and completing his coaching staff. Change can sometimes be difficult, but Jones has worked hard to make his transition to UCF a smooth one for all involved.

``It has been a whirlwind, but it's been a good one,'' Jones said earlier this week. ``We've tried to be effective and have goals in mind with everything that we do.''

Jones comes to UCF as one of college basketball's most dynamic, young coaches. His ability to recruit elite-level talent and build successful teams gives the Knights hopes for a bright future ahead.

Jones sat down with UCFathletics.com's John Denton for a question-and-answer session about his busy past couple of months, his feelings on the returning players and his insights into UCF's newest recruits.

QUESTION: What were your immediate goals upon taking the job and how have those plans come together so far?

Donnie Jones: ``We had to hire a new staff, and we were fortunate to bring my staff here. Continuity and chemistry is important to me and we have guys who have been in our system for three years.''

``The second thing was the kids in this program. I had to make sure that we established the kids that were here, let them know what is expected from them, sell our philosophy and get a chance to know them. We wanted them to feel good about his program.''

``And the third thing was recruiting. We went out to try and touch as many people as we could and hit the needs that we have in our program. We identified those needs quickly and fortunately we were able to land a couple of guys who can be impactful now and in the future. The worst thing that you could do would be to sign kids who aren't good enough. We wanted to make sure that they were guys who could help our program either this year or next year."

QUESTION: You got somewhat of a late start in recruiting for UCF because of the timing of your hiring. Can you talk about the challenges that has presented for you and how hard you have worked to overcome them?

Donnie Jones: ``I just had a short period of time to be out. I did a lot of booster functions and a lot of phone stuff, calling people and connecting with the past people here. Our camps are starting late because people weren't sure when they were happening. We'll do a good job with the kids that we have on campus. We have five kids (signed) so far and none of them are from Florida. This job entails that we can get our best kids from anywhere. We want to take care of our state and we want to recruit nationally as well as internationally when you are in Orlando.''

``We really only had four days to go into high schools and the rest of them were weekends. And no one was doing things on the weekends because they were at events and we're not allowed (by NCAA rules) to go to events. We had four days to evaluate someone and sometimes it was watching someone shoot free throws. If you didn't have someone who told you that a kid could play, you wouldn't know if he could actually play. They might pass the eye test because he's athletic and can dunk, so you can make mistakes and you have to be careful.

``Thank goodness some of the kids I knew about were some of the ones that I had seen already or they were past players that I had recruited like Tom Herzog, who we wanted when we were at Florida. Now, we'll have a year to get entrenched in the state and start developing relationships that we can cultivate. Our state is important and we need to do a good job here to be effective.''

QUESTION: How much have you been able to learn about the returning players and develop relationships with that core group?

Donnie Jones: ``It's tough because from a basketball standpoint, you only have three short weeks and two hours a week to work with them. I watched a lot of film and I was familiar with them having been at Marshall. So I've watched them play a lot of games in a different system. That's not how we're going to play now, but I'm impressed with those guys and I've gotten to know them as kids. Now, setting individual goals for them going into the summer is a big part of what we're doing.''

QUESTION: You've made it known that you want to play an up-tempo style here at UCF with players defending all over the court and keeping pressure on the opposition. How have the players accepted that change in style so far?

Donnie Jones: ``In a short period of time we were able to try and implement what we do. Everybody wants to play that style, but they don't realize the work that's involved. It's hard to implement that work now because you are limited at the level that you can do it. But the good news is we got them all together and playing and trying to build chemistry that will hopefully carry over into the fall.''

QUESTION: I've heard coaches say that it's the players who dictate the style of play and not the coaches because the players have to be willing to put forth the effort needed for an up-tempo game plan. What are the factors that going into pushing the pace?

Donnie Jones: ``We need depth. To play that way you can't just have five guys. We have to have depth. The biggest thing for improvement is playing against one another in practice. You will play 30 games, but practice 158 times. What happens in practice will prepare those guys. We're trying to get two guys at each position and that created some depth.''

QUESTION: Keith Clanton and Marcus Jordan made tremendous splashes last season in their first season on campus, earning all-freshmen honors in Conference USA. What has been the game plan for continued improvement for those players this summer?

Donnie Jones: ``We set down individually and gave goals to each guy. Obviously we had to get some weight off Marcus. That was a focal point for him to be able to play at a higher speed all of the time. It will make him quicker, leaner and more athletic.

``And Keith has gotten stronger as well. We need his size and strength to be better, but also improve his mobility so that he can play on the perimeter a little more, face up and do some stuff.''

QUESTION: Clanton was widely hailed as one of the best recruits ever to choose UCF's basketball program. You faced him twice last season at Marshall and you've gotten to work with him over the summer. How good of a player can he become?

Donnie Jones: ``Keith's upside is through the roof. Like most freshmen, he has no idea how good he could be. Now, the biggest thing is to get him out of his comfort zone and teaching him to go beyond where he is. He has had a great attitude and he's worked extremely hard. I'm so excited about coaching both of those guys.''

QUESTION: Point guard A.J. Rompza likely has the most to gain from playing in a new system with a faster tempo. What are your thoughts on Rompza's abilities as a point guard and a leader?

Donnie Jones: ``A.J. has the ability to be the leader of the team with his attitude, his leadership and his work ethic. He competes and plays hard. I want to expand his game. Instead of being a penetrator-passer, I want him to be able to shoot the ball and score. He has the ability to do that more.''

QUESTION: Let's talk about some of your newcomers. Isaiah Sykes was a highly touted wing player out of Detroit who was courted by several elite programs. Dwight McCombs gives you some size at power forward, while Jarvis Davis should provide immediate help at the guard slots. Talk about what you like about each of those players.

Donnie Jones: ``I really like (Sykes) because he's versatile and he can play the (point), play (shooting guard) and (small forward). He's a basketball player. He's athletic, he's a big guard and he's tough. He just brings a lot of things that I like in versatile guards.

``We needed some size and strength underneath, needed a guy who could rebound, block shots and give us a presence down low. (McCombs) gives us that immediately and he has experience from already playing Division I and then junior college. We're trying to get some pounds off him and hopefully physically he can give us a presence inside.''

``(Davis) really loves to play and he excites me because I got to watch him play this year at Hargrave Military Academy. He's going to be a great complement to A.J. (Rompza), he'll push him every day and he'll be the point guard of the future with his ability. He's a true point, a pass-first point and a playmaker who can fit in quickly because he can physically compete now.''

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