John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF Getting Stronger from Adversity

Jan. 26, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Because the UCF men's basketball team experienced success before failure, had monumental growth spurts before frustrating growing pains, it makes the current predicament of a still relatively young roster somewhat puzzling. But in all actuality, the struggles that UCF is going through now on the heels of the most feel-good time in the history of the program are fairly commonplace.

With a new coach in Donnie Jones and a roster still dominated mostly by sophomores, juniors and ineligible transfer students, the Knights were bound to hit some bumps in the road along the way this season and have to deal with bouts of erratic inconsistency. It just so happens that UCF's first sign of trouble came after a heady 14-0 start and a first-ever rise in the national rankings.

In some ways, it's been a backward sort of start for the 14-4 Knights, who face Conference USA powerhouse Memphis (15-4, 4-1) in West Tennessee tonight at 8 p.m. in a nationally televised game (CBS College Sports Network). UCF aced its non-conference schedule, building chemistry and confidence right out of the chute despite so much newness to the program. But the Knights have struggled against the teams they are the most familiar with, losing games to Houston, Southern Miss, East Carolina and Rice.

Jones knew adversity would hit this team at some point and it just so happened that it came much later than most expected. But he knows that it's not too late for his team to get back on track. Jones has stressed that in losing he's been able to learn about the makeup of his basketball team.

``We're not making excuses for not winning, but obviously we haven't dealt with losing until January instead of December,'' Jones said. ``We've lost doing what we were doing well. Now, we have handle losing before we can win again.

``The hardest thing being new is I haven't seen them in this scenario before and seen how they handle adversity, coaching and coming back the next day,'' Jones continued. ``They're down right now, but they have worked hard and the intensity has been high. We just need a break, but you have to make your own breaks in this game.''

Other programs in transition with first-year coaches have suffered very similar fates as UCF has. To wit:

? At Auburn, the Tigers have suffered bad losses under first-year coach Tony Barbee, falling to UNC Asheville, Samford, Campbell and Presbyterian. (It's likely, however, that no one on the Plains has noticed that with the Tigers winning football's national championship).

? Oliver Purnell left Clemson for DePaul, but his Blue Demons have been a mess with bad losses to Western Carolina, Cal State Northridge and Indiana State.

? Jeff Bzdelik had success in the NBA and at Air Force, but his move to Wake Forest as the head coach hasn't been a smooth one. Stetson shocked the Demon Deacons early in the season with its active zone defense and Wake has also dropped games against Winthrop and Presbyterian. Shocking stuff, indeed, from a traditional ACC power.

? And the hyped arrivals of Dana Altman (Oregon) and Steve Donahue (Boston College) have been at times very rocky. The Ducks dropped games against San Jose State and Idaho, while BC fell flat in games against Yale and Harvard. Eagles fans have to be glad BC isn't competing in the Ivy League.

Jones has even been a part of something very similar the last time he was helping to re-start a program in the Sunshine State. When he was a first-year assistant coach at Florida under Billy Donovan, the Gators suffered ugly losses to Penn and Delaware. Ultimately, the Donovan-Jones tag-team helped the Gators through their growing pains and they built the Gators into two-time national champions.

And Jones believes a similar rise at UCF is possible considering the enormous potential of the basketball program. In just his first six weeks on the job, Jones had the Knights off to their best-ever Division I start and a rise all the way up to No. 18 in the country.

Undoubtedly, the future is bright, but for now all the focus is getting this team back on track. Guards Marcus Jordan and A.J. Rompza are battling injuries, and the Knights are looking for more consistent scoring from Keith Clanton and Isaac Sosa. But there is still a very strong belief that they can get back to being the highly successful team that they were early in the season.

``We were 14-0 early in the season and people think it's easy and think we can just show up and beat teams, but that's not the case,'' Sosa said. ``It's a tough thing to do, putting losses behind you. When you lose one, two and three games, you try to put it behind you and then you lose a fourth one. But our coaches are emphasizing looking forward and we're taking every game as a one-game season.''

Jones said the first job for him now is to try and restore the confidence of his team. He allows players to operate with tremendous amounts of freedom on the floor, but Jones has sensed his team tightening up and pressing of late. Just simply getting the Knights to believe again - as they did early in the season in big wins against Florida, Miami, USF and UMass - could help jolt this program back onto the winning track.

``Right now, we have some young guys who are better players than they are showing. It's about seeing them learn from that and watching how they handle it,'' Jones said. ``With every team and every season you are going to go through situations like this - one game, two games, three games, four games or how many ever it may be - but it's about stopping it and turning it around.

``It has to come from within,'' Jones added. ``Our coaches have to coach harder. We have to pick guys up and sometimes hug guys more. Right now, we're just trying to figure out the buttons to push. But at the end of the day it's just about the team coming together, fighting through this together. We know we can do it because we've done it before this season. But it's not about what you have done, but what you are doing now. But I'm confident that this is going to help our team be stronger in the long run.''

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