John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF Hoping to Continue Special Season

Dec. 8, 2010

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - It started, first, as a unified belief among UCF's players, who trusted in new coach Donnie Jones' system and dedicated themselves with hours of offseason work. That work paid immediate dividends with some early success, helping the confidence spread like wildfire.

Now, with UCF having already pulled off key victories against Florida and South Florida, there's a growing belief among the Knights that their 7-0 start is just the start of something special.

``I've been trying to preach to guys that it really, really feels like something special is going on this year,'' said UCF junior shooting guard Isaac Sosa, one of several Knights to make major individual improvements this season. ``This is my third year at UCF and this is the best position that I've been in. I think we have something special here and we want to take advantage of it.''

The Knights, who host Bethune-Cookman on Saturday at 5 p.m. at UCF Arena, are off to their best start since the 1979-80 season. The Knights are beating foes by an average of 27.4 points per game with five blowout victories.

And last Wednesday night's gritty 57-54 defeat of No. 16 Florida at Orlando's Amway Center - only the second defeat of a ranked team in school history - confirmed that the Knights are indeed in the midst of a major turnaround this season.

``It was a big win and I had a lot of people send me messages, but in the back of my head I'm telling myself, `We're supposed to win that game,''' UCF small forward David Diakite said. ``You can feel something special going on here because of all the hard work that we've been doing over the summer and over the course of the season and now it's starting to pay off. If we just keep working hard we'll get better and better and feels really good right now.''

Jones, who took over the program last March, has worked to instill a tough-minded, disciplined system at UCF that is predicated around hustle and aggressive play. Often, the Knights have broken the will of foes with their ability to push the tempo while also pressuring defensively all over the floor. That style of play has allowed the Knights to average 80 points a game compared to just 52.6 for their foes.

Jones, who was a part of plenty of winning at Florida where he was an assistant coach for 11 seasons, isn't ready to classify this season as a truly special one just yet. He's been delighted with how this team has dealt with success, but it's true measure will come when the Knights have to battle through adversity and tough road games in the conference.

``It's still too early. We still haven't experienced adversity yet,'' Jones following Tuesday's morning workout. ``We've had some things not go well in the game, but we haven't had true adversity where we've lost and shown how we can bounce back. We've been at home, we've played at Stetson and at a neutral site against Florida, but we haven't had true adversity on the road.''

At times, Jones is equal parts basketball coach and motivational speaker and his players, who rave about his fiery pregame speeches, are buying what he's selling these days. Jones' latest message to the team is that it has to keep a PhD - but it's not the high-level degree most might think of.

``Our guys have been good at keeping their focus, and I've told them we have to keep our PhD - poor, hungry and driven,'' he said. ``We have to stay focused, learn from winning and not losing. When you've won a lot of games in a row - and I've been a part of this from my days at Florida - you have to find ways to keep guys hungry. You have to challenge them every day and that's something that you fight. When you have success it's the normal thing to get complacent, but we can't let that happen.''

The Knights haven't looked one bit complacent so far, getting better as the season has progressed and seemingly feeding on the success and teaming with confidence. And that confidence has to led to some major individual growth among UCF's top players.

Leading scorer Marcus Jordan (16.4 ppg.) has become more of a dynamic playmaker off the dribble and created shots both himself and others down the stretch against Florida. Fellow sophomore Keith Clanton has made a big leap after working all offseason to add strength and firm his body by averaging 15.6 points and 9.3 rebounds a game. Sosa is a much more accomplished offensive player off the dribble, while also being one of the nation's premier spot-up shooters. And Diakite, who entered the season having just made two 3-pointers in his UCF career, has already made three 3-pointers this season after making as many as 700 jump shots a day over the summer.

``It's a challenge to stay focused because a lot of teams start to get complacent after wins and coach is trying to keep us level-headed and fighting hard,'' said Diakite, who had two 3-pointers against Florida. ``We keep working hard every day in practice. We're emphasizing that it's what we do in the gym that's going to make us better and not all of the (hype). We try to keep that in our minds.''

After the defeat of Florida that was highlighted repeatedly on ESPN, Jones received an outpouring of support from his friends and family around the country. He not only received 117 congratulatory text messages, but he said he also returned each and every one of them. But he said the mission now is to look forward and not behind, and he wants his team focusing more on the next task instead of the previous accomplishment.

``We have to understand that people are going to play us at a different level because we have had success,'' he said. ``We've gone from the hunter to the hunted and we have to stay in that hunter mode. We really haven't done anything yet and we're still putting bricks in the wall of this program."

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