John Denton's Knights Insider: Orlando Native Helping Put UCF on National Scene

Dec. 22, 2010

="" alt="Knight Head" border="0" class="imported"> Read John Denton's Knights Insider | ="" alt="Twitter Logo" border="0" class="imported">Follow us on Twitter | ="" alt="Facebook Logo" border="0" class="imported">Get social with the Knights on Facebook

By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - For UCF's blossoming basketball team to beat Florida, Miami and South Florida all in the same season and stake its claim as arguably the best program in the Sunshine State is a huge accomplishment.

But for someone like Keith Clanton, who resisted the urge to play for one of those schools and instead decided to stay in his hometown of Orlando and leave a legacy as one of the players who helped to put UCF on the scene nationally, it's an off-the-charts high for the silky smooth power forward.

``I think maybe it means a little more to me because I'm from here,'' said Clanton, who declined scholarship offers from Miami and USF to attend UCF. ``I guess UCF isn't really known for basketball, but now after what we've done you can say we're just as good as the Florida's, the Miami's and the other teams in this state. ... It just means a lot to me beating those schools. Everybody on our team is doing what they can to put UCF on the map. People may have looked at us as a football school in the past, but we want them to think of us as a basketball school as well.''

They are doing just that more and more these days because the Knights are a perfect 10-0 and ranked nationally at No. 24 for the first time in school history. And the influence of Clanton, the local boy made good for the Knights, is a big reason why UCF has become one of college basketball's feel-good stories this season.

Heading into Wednesday night's game against UMass (7-3) in Amherst, Mass., the Knights are one of just nine undefeated teams in the country. What makes that mark even more impressive is the fact that the Knights are the only team of those nine undefeated squads that did not make it to the postseason last year.

But new coach Donnie Jones, who took over the program last March, has had a big influence on instilling a belief and an expectation of success at UCF. He said upon beating Miami on Saturday that ``anything is possible,'' and he thought all along that the Knights had the potential to do some special things this season.

And the mid-mannered, often overtly mellow Clanton has benefited greatly from Jones' intense and confident approach. Clanton has played more in attack mode this season, and he expects success now and isn't necessarily surprised by it.

``We have to play with that mindset that we expect to win every night out. We feel like when we play our game that we can play with any team in the country,'' Clanton said. ``I really don't think it's a surprise because I know the amount of work that we put in. We went really hard in Summer A and Summer B (sessions). I knew that would really help us, and that work is a big reason why we're doing so well now.''

Clanton is doing quite well this season, leading the Knights in scoring at 16.7 points per game and rebounding with 8.8 boards a night. He and guard Marcus Jordan, UCF's super sophomores who were Conference USA All-Freshmen picks last season, have given the Knights a lethal inside-out one-two punch.

Clanton's growth this season has come in large part because he was one of UCF's most ardent workers over the summer. By lifting weights seriously for the first time in his life, Clanton simultaneously added almost 20 pounds of bulk while also trimming his body-fat index by four percent. That work not only transformed his 6-foot-8, 245-pound body, but it also made Clanton more explosive around the rim and better conditioned late in games.

``I've been very impressed with Keith. He's been a leader for us with the way that he works and not with the way that he talks,'' Jones said. ``He's led by example. Even gaining that weight, he's running the best he's ever run and moved the best he's ever moved. He's in the best shape of his life and doing that he's uplifted others.''

Clanton's improved conditioning has never been more apparent than lately. He scored 22 of his career-best 28 points against Louisiana in the second half. And in Saturday's defeat of Miami, Clanton scored 13 of his 14 points after a fiery halftime speech from Jones, who wanted his big man attacking the rim in the second half. Clanton did just that, helping UCF make 15 of 20 shots and get to the line 37 times in Saturday's second half for the big victory.

Jones has a history with helping talented big men grow their games to the point where they can play in the NBA, and he's impressed upon Clanton that he could someday be a professional player if he continues to develop. Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Udonis Haslem, David Lee, Marreese Speights and Hassan Whiteside are just some of the frontline players who Jones has coached who have gone on to make a splash in the NBA.

Now, Clanton hopes to be the next one. That is, after he is finished helping put his hometown UCF Knights on the map nationally.

``Knowing some of the former players that he's coached, it just makes you want to drive even harder to try and make it to the next level. He's made me play harder and practice harder and it's helped me,'' Clanton said. ``I feel like I can play better defense now that I'm a little quicker and I'm in better shape. It's really helped me out as a player and I can tell a big difference. I feel like I can play harder throughout the game.''

And more Clanton usually means more success for the Knights. He is easily the team's most efficient player, shooting 60 percent from the floor and 58.8 percent from 3-point range, while also contributing 1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals a game. If Clanton can keep it up and the Knights can follow suit, very big things could be ahead for the program that he's putting on the map nationally.

``That's our team goal, to make it to the NCAA tournament,'' Clanton said. ``We're just taking it one game at a time, but we think we can do it and be a really good team.''

Click here to receive the Knights Insider via email

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