John Denton's Knights Insider: The Toughness of Marcus Jordan

Jan. 7, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO (UCFAthletics.com) - Marcus Jordan drives fearlessly down the lane, absorbs and ignores contact near the rim and somehow manages to flip the ball up and in before landing hard on the hardwood as teammates rush over to help him up.

That scene has taken place several times already this season - and been replayed endlessly on ESPN's nightly Top 10 plays, of course. While you might think those plays are products of Jordan impressively toning his body from his freshman season to his sophomore campaign or simply because new UCF coach Donnie Jones has put the ball in his hands more, instead Jordan's innate ability to finish with contact is a learned skill.

And it is one that didn't come about easily.

With his famous father, Michael Jordan, often away starring in the NBA, much of Marcus' care as a kid growing up in Highland Park, Ill., fell on older cousins Carl Vanoy and John Hicks. And when Marcus and older brother, Jeff, and Vanoy and Hicks would play pick-up basketball games, the older cousins would do their best to toughen the kids up with hard hits. Marcus didn't know it at the time, but the work was getting him ready for what he would face as the unquestioned star of UCF's undefeated (14-0) and nationally ranked (Nos. 18/19) basketball squad.

``My cousins would always put me down, knock me down. So growing up I always want to get into them first before they could hit me and knock them back,'' Jordan remembered. ``It became a habit taking the hits and finishing at the rim. Now, I know the contact is going to be there, but I don't focus on that. I just want to get the ball up on the glass or put it in the right spot for my teammates.''

Jordan has certainly put himself and the Knights in a good spot this season. With Jordan and fellow sophomore Keith Clanton leading the way, the Knights are off to their best start ever at the Division I level. They went 13-0 in nonconference play, beating the likes of Florida, Miami, USF, UMass and Princeton before rallying past Marshall on Wednesday night in the first Conference USA game of the season.

Jordan was certainly the driving force in the Marshall victory, scoring 22 of his game-high 26 points in the second half. Eight of his nine field goals were on hard drives to the hoop and he got to the free throw line 12 more times because of his willingness to attack the rim fearlessly. Heck, he seems to get to the free throw line more than his father did during his Hall of Fame career. And Clanton, for one, is amazed at how the 6-foot-3 Jordan can take hits and still score in traffic among bigger players.

``I always feel like he's going to bounce right back up every time, sort of like (Miami Heat superstar) Dwyane Wade where he will fall down, but get right back up,'' said Clanton, whose Knights play at Houston on Saturday at 5 p.m. ``He has great body control and he can really finish around the basket. I could see in pick-up ball and in the preseason that he was finishing everything around the basket, so we knew it was going to be a great season for him.''

It's been a great season for Jordan - one that few could have envisioned following a freshman season in which he averaged just eight points per game - because he dramatically changed his body and his game. Told by Jones that the Knights would be pushing the pace much more and that he needed to be a playmaker for the team, Jordan worked all summer on his game. Daily workouts where he stayed in the gym until he made 500 shots a day improved his outside jump shot. And by working on his fitness and changing his eating habits, Jordan trimmed down from 220 pounds to 205 pounds and he slashed his body fat index from 12 percent to six percent.

``I definitely feel it and being in shape is a huge part of it. The way I attacked summer workouts that's a big part of my success now,'' Jordan said. ``I was eating a lot of salads and cutting out the sodas. But more so than anything, it was getting in the gym and going hard in the basketball workouts. That got my conditioning right and helped my game.''

Did it ever? This season, Jordan leads the Knights by averaging 16.7 points per game. He's shooting 50.7 percent from the floor on the strength of getting to the basket so often, and this season he's already made 22 3-pointers compared to just 21 all of last season. He had 28 points in the season-opener, battered Florida and Miami for 18 and 23 points, won the UCF Holiday Classic MVP award after pouring in 26 against Princeton and was there time and time again down the stretch on Wednesday against Marshall.

The fact that Jordan played 38 minutes on Wednesday - and was strong at the end of the game - was a testament to how far he's come, Jones said.

``He hasn't been able to practice as much as we'd like him to because of his (ankle) injury, but the guy played 38 minutes,'' Jones said. ``Let's be honest, last year he'd score early on and then struggle in the second half. But he was at his best the last five minutes in the game. I told him it was a testament to him learning to play through his fatigue and understanding how to be in shape and finishing at the end.''

Jones said it first dawned on him that Jordan could be a star player in Conference USA late last season when Jones was still the coach at Marshall. In a three-overtime game between the Knights and Herd, Jordan has 18 points and was unstoppable for long stretches. That performance showed Jones that he could put the ball in Jordan's hands and could make plays for both himself and others.

``Obviously, watching him in the Marshall game last year and he played really well against us up there. We had a tough time stopping him. He was coming off screens, getting in the paint and finishing,'' Jones remembered. ``After watching a lot of film I knew he had a chance to be really good and we needed a guy who could create and make plays. To me, he was the one guy who we could put the ball in his hands, he could finish strong and just had a feel for how to play.

``And he's improved his jump shot, which has made him tough to guard now,'' Jones continued. ``Last year, everybody played him to drive and would live with the couple of shots that went down. Now he's shooting the ball exceptionally well, which makes him a two-headed monster with the way he can really drive it.''

Jordan said he's going to keep driving it and absorbing the contact until teams find a way to stop him. Marshall coach Tom Herrion was furious following Wednesday's game because Jordan continuously got into the lane for drives even though his team had practiced for two days to take away that very aspect of the UCF guard's game. Jordan knows that team's will make adjustments and it's just up to him to counter those moves.

``A big part of getting into the paint is taking what the defense gives you and not trying to force what you want to do,'' he said. ``I have to be able to adapt and if they want to force me one way, I'll see an opening the other way and I'll take it.''

And he's taking this opportunity now to become relevant on the basketball court more for his game than his famous last name. Playing with the toughness that he has displayed so far has certainly helped him do that this season for the Knights.

``I always felt like I was kind of overlooked in recruiting coming out of high school,'' Jordan said. ``I just thought that if I kept on working that it would pay off for me. It's paying off for me now with what we're doing here at UCF.''

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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.