John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF to Face Tests On and Off Floor this Week

Feb. 1, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Before the UCF men's basketball team could even depart on a 4,255-mile roadtrip that will stretch into a sixth day away from home, there was a bump in the road. An ice storm in Dallas shut down travel in the Midwest and meant that the Knights would be arriving in El Paso much later than anticipated.

Such is the life on the road in college basketball where teams must develop as much mental toughness as physical stamina. Because teams are often thousands of miles from home and on the road together for days at a time, it's no wonder they often develop an ``us against the world'' mentality.

Dealing with those bumps in the road, the hassles of traveling and living out of hotels and suitcases for almost a week is a grind, but it also often offers up the truest test of a team. Thrive in those circumstances and anything is possible. And often, the road is where a team finds itself and bonds tighter than ever.

That's certainly what UCF coach Donnie Jones is hoping for as the Knights travel to El Paso, Texas, for Wednesday's game against UTEP and onto Greenville, N.C., for Saturday's showdown against East Carolina.

``Dealing with life on the road is all part of being road warriors as we say,'' said Jones, who had hoped his team could leave early Tuesday to get adjusted to the altitude in El Paso and shake the jet lag. ``If there's ever a time to get out on the road, maybe it's now. Being at home, sometimes I think guys play tighter. Maybe on the road we can play looser and more focused. All we have to focus on is basketball. We'll be doing our studies on the road, obviously, but sometimes you get more rest on the road.''

Once 14-0 and ranked No. 18 in the country, UCF has stumbled mightily in Conference USA play, losing six consecutive games. Last Saturday's defeat to C-USA power UAB was particularly difficult because the Knights played well throughout, led by five points with five minutes to play, but didn't finish well and lost.

``That loss just kills us because we did so many things better, but there were little things like discipline defensively that hurt us,'' senior guard Taylor Young said. ``It's just little stuff and we just have to put it all together.''

And they'll have to put together against a UTEP team that is the pick of many to win the C-USA title. The Miners are 17-5 overall and 5-2 in league play and have beaten Michigan, New Mexico State, Texas Tech and Air Force this season, but lost on Saturday night 69-68 to Tulsa.

Senior guard UTEP guard Randy Culpepper is averaging 19.6 points a game. UCF fans undoubtedly have nightmares about Culpepper, who made 13-of-20 shots and 9-of-15 pointers in Orlando last January against the Knights.

``They have a bunch of seniors off that team that won the game last year and won 15 (league) games. They have experience, good coaching and they have thepPlayer of the year back and their four guards are leading them in scoring,'' Jones said. ``That's been the key in the league, getting good guard play.''

That's been difficult of late for the Knights what with starting point guard A.J. Rompza out because of a stress reaction in his foot and wing David Diakite needing knee surgery that will put him out at least two weeks. Star guard Marcus Jordan is still battling ankle pain and a jammed toe injury, making it difficult for him to practice with any regularity.

Jones is hoping that being together on the road for an extended period of time will help revitalize the spirits of his slumping team. Senior center Tom Herzog, who is coming off the best game of his career with 20 points against UAB, stressed that there's still plenty of fight in this team and plenty left to play for.

``We're going to be gone for a while, so it's a lot of time where it's just our team together,'' Herzog said. ``There will be a lot of good bonding time. The important thing is we have to keep our eyes on our goals and try to come back with two wins.''

Jones said that a trip that will stretch from Tuesday to the early morning hours of Sunday will be a good learning lesson for his relatively young team full of sophomores and freshmen. Because the Knights will miss so much class time while they are gone, UCF academic advisor Jennifer Alger will be meeting the team and conducting daily study hall sessions.

``It is hard being away so long, so we'll take our academic advisor, Jenn, with us on the road. We'll have study hall a couple of times, even on gameday,'' Jones said. ``It's hard for those guys to stay focused, but that's part of learning to handle your academics when you are on the road.''

Young, one of just three seniors on the Knights roster, said a difficult roadtrip like this will tell a lot about the makeup of this UCF squad. He said the belief is still high despite the recent struggles and that the Knights are determined to finish this season with a flourish.

``You get this kind of adversity and it's a challenge to get closer instead of spreading apart. Everyone could go their separate way and play the blame game, but real leaders step up and real character is shown, and I think that's what we will do,'' Young said. ``I agree with coach 100 percent that it might be good for our team to get away from everything out on the road. It's just the team and just the guys and you are able to focus. Sometimes it's even better being on the road, and I expect us to play well.''

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