John Denton's Knights Insider: Knights Taking Pride in Defensive Effort

Jan. 14, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - At 6.2 points per game, senior center Tom Herzog ranks fifth on UCF's basketball team in scoring. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, there might not be a more important player on the squad because of the 7-footer's dramatic impact on others around him.

With Herzog behind them, UCF's defenders can push up into offensive players to contest shots and generally harass dribblers on the perimeter. With Herzog behind him, super sophomore Keith Clanton was able to move back to his natural power forward position and he has help shouldering the rebounding and interior defensive load.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest reasons why UCF has suddenly become one of the nation's best defensive teams is the unassuming 7-footer, who transferred from Michigan State and transformed the Knights into an elite team. With Herzog protecting the rim, UCF leads the country with 7.13 blocks per game.

And the impressive numbers don't end there. UCF is giving up just 58.1 points a game, good for the 12th-best mark in the country. Frustrated foes are shooting just 36.6 percent against the Knights this season, a figure that ranks sixth in the nation.

``I really don't get caught up in all of the stats, but I just know that with Keith, myself and a couple of other guys such as A.J. (Tyler), P.J. (Gaynor) and Dwight (McCombs), we have a lot of guys who can block shots,'' said Herzog, who ranks 12th nationally in blocks per game at 2.8. ``We've got a bunch of good shot-blockers and we take pride in our defense as a team. That's a big part of what we're all about.''

Herzog has certainly been a big part of UCF's run to a 14-1 start and a first national ranking. The No. 23/22 Knights saw their best start at the Division I level come to an end last Saturday in Houston, but they have since had several days to iron out their issues. The Knights, 1-1 in Conference USA play, are back in action on Saturday at Southern Miss, and Herzog knows that UCF will have to play with mental and physical toughness to win on the road.

``Playing on the road is always tougher. You've got the opposing crowd, unfamiliar shooting backgrounds and it always seems like calls don't go your way on the road,'' said Herzog, a fifth-year senior. ``It's always tough, but to win your conference and be an elite team you have to win on the road. We've gotten some good road wins, but it will be tough for us. We feel like we can get it done.''

Herzog has been getting it done all season despite playing most of the year with an injury in his left hand. Finally fully healthy, he's expected to move back into the starting lineup on Saturday. And with more playing time now, he'll likely swat more shots.

He had an eight-block game earlier this season against Bethune-Cookman, a five-block performance at UMass and a four-block effort in his first game as a Knight against West Florida. And in UCF's two biggest wins of the season - against Florida (four points, four rebounds, two blocked shots) and Miami (11 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks) - Herzog came up especially big.

And he has plenty of help on a Knights team that unofficially has a ``no layups'' rule in effect every game. Clanton, who has great length and timing, is tied for 36th in the nation in blocks with 2.2 a game. McCombs, the starter while Herzog has rebounded from the hand injury, has blocked 17 shots, while Gaynor has added another nine blocks off the bench. In 15 games, UCF has blocked 89 more shots than its foes.

The blocked shots are important enough, but the hidden impact on a game is what it does to the psyche of the other team. What statistics can't account for is the number of times that a foe has a shot altered or pulls up for a 12-footer instead of driving for a layup because of the presence of UCF's frontline.

Herzog said a classic example of UCF's length and strength affecting foes was last week's 65-58 defeat of Marshall. UCF held the Thundering Herd without a point for a six-minute stretch late in the second half, allowing it to take a lead it wouldn't relinquish. Marshall missed eight consecutive shots, three of which were blocked by the Knights.

``Some players only can attack the rim, but if you take that away from them they become frustrated and their game declines,'' said Herzog, who had nine rebounds and four blocks against Marshall. ``I'm always telling our guys, `If you get beat, don't worry because I'm going to be there and they will have to finish over me. I know Keith plays with that same mentality and I think it helps our defense.''

What also helps UCF's defense immensely is the ability to pressure the ball and contest shots without fear of getting beat for layups and dunks. Clanton, Herzog and others allow UCF's defenders to hound the ball.

``It's a huge help when you can get up and pressure a man while knowing that you have shot-blockers back there,'' UCF standout guard Marcus Jordan said. ``It makes you want to pressure the ball even more and that just tires them out on offense.''

Added UCF coach Donnie Jones, who was instrumental in signing Herzog and McCombs to bolster the frontline: ``Those big guys are huge because it allows you to pressure more on the perimeter. You can do more things to funnel opponents to the basket when you have Tom Herzog and Keith Clanton in there and some other guys who can really block shots and cause commotion.''

No Knight is happier about the addition of Herzog and McCombs than Clanton, who had to play out of position often at center last season as a true freshman. He said the Knights are more of a complete team now with a true center to guard the rim. He stressed that UCF wouldn't be where it is now without those big guys that have an unquestioned impact on the game.

``He helps me out a lot,'' Clanton said of Herzog specifically. ``I know something if I get caught up I can throw it up around the rim and Tom will catch it. He blocks a lot of shots, rebounds and takes a lot of pressure off of me. I'm so glad that he's here.''

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