John Denton's Knights Insider: Postseason Possibilities Excite Knights

March 10, 2011

="" alt="Knight Head" border="0" class="imported"> Read John Denton's Knights Insider | ="" alt="Twitter Logo" border="0" class="imported">Follow us on Twitter | ="" alt="Facebook Logo" border="0" class="imported">Get social with the Knights on Facebook

By John Denton

EL PASO, Texas (UCFAthletics.com) - Minutes after UCF concluded play at the Conference USA Championship Wednesday at UTEP's Don Haskins Center, athletics director Keith Tribble waited outside the Knights' locker room hoping to offer words of encouragement to UCF's players and coaching staff.

In many ways, UCF's 75-60 loss to East Carolina in first-round play of the conference tournament was a microcosm of the team's season. And in the end, when head coach Donnie Jones looked glum and several players hobbled out of the arena with slumped shoulders, Tribble tried to put the season into a proper perspective. And if he had one magical wish, it would be to have a remote control in hand with a pause button.

``It's a Year 1 transition with Donnie (Jones) and now we look forward to coach and his staff bringing in the kind of student-athletes who can win on the field of competition and in the classroom. That's Donnie's commitment,'' Tribble said. ``Am I pleased with the first year? Well, if you said we'd have a chance to win 19 games, have a chance to be in the Top 25 and go 13-0 in the nonconference would you take it? I'd take it ... and be done right there.

``We have a lot to look back on and we all know that there's a lot to build on,'' Tribble continued. ``And at the end of the day, I believe coach Jones and his staff are going to get it done.''

Even though Wednesday's loss ended ninth-seeded UCF's hopes of making some noise in the C-USA tournament and likely hurt the chances of getting into the NIT, Tribble all but promised that Marcus Jordan, Keith Clanton and Isaac Sosa aren't finished playing just yet this season. Tribble is fully committed to making the financial commitment required to assure the Knights a game in the College Basketball Invitational if the tournament extends a bid to the Knights. That should be a slam dunk considering UCF's big wins this season, the size of its fanbase and the star power of Jordan and Clanton.

Tribble knows there's great value in the men's program getting a chance to continue a season that has been both magical and maniacal all rolled into one. First, playing in the 16-team CBI, which begins on Tuesday, would give the Knights a shot at winning 20 games. Only five teams in school history have done that since moving up to the Division I level.

Secondly, C-USA teams have fared well in the CBI and used it as a springboard to bigger and better things the next season. Tulsa won the inaugural CBI in 2008 and UTEP reached the championship series in 2009. A year later, the Miners won the C-USA regular-season crown and garnered an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

``I look back at what we've done during the season and see where the program is. (Playing in the postseason) would give them a chance to finish it out and another opportunity to play,'' Tribble said. ``I think it would be well worth it to play again.''

The 2010-11 season is one Knights' fans won't soon forget - for a lot of reasons. First, of course, was the opening act that seemed downright magical with the Knights racing to a 14-0 start. With Jones pushing all the right buttons and Jordan showing off the major improvements he made over the summer, UCF hung on to top Florida and USF and surged past Miami in the second half in south Florida.

Not long after UCF's football team shocked Georgia in the Liberty Bowl, the nation started taking notice of the Knights' blossoming basketball team. UCF entered the national polls for the first time in school history, climbing as high as 18th in the polls and sticking around for four weeks.

The dream season was interrupted, however, by a midseason swoon. But even as the Knights were skidding, Jones insisted that the team was improving and was close to breaking out of its funk.

And right on cue, that happened with a thrilling home defeat of Tulsa on Feb. 12. Proving that was no fluke, UCF proceeded to knock UTEP and Southern Miss out of first place in the C-USA standings with two more impressive victories.

Down the stretch, UCF won five of seven games end the regular season. The ability to stay strong in the face of so much adversity showed Jones plenty about his team. Using this first season to evaluate his personnel, Jones said he learned as much or more about his Knights during the losing skid as he did the early hot start. And the ability to pull out of the nosedive encouraged him that bright things are ahead for the program.

``We've gone through some bumps and valleys and had a tough stretch there, but we found out a lot about ourselves as a basketball team,'' Jones said. ``For, being a new coach here and it being a new program for (the players), we're learning from each other and learning how to handle adversity. I think it's important for a team when you are building a program like we are here that this is just the beginning. We're going to learn from this season and get better.''

Jones' caveat, of course, is that he hopes that there's still plenty of basketball to be played for this UCF team. He has said repeatedly throughout the season that while he's focused on the present, he's also looking long term with the Knights. In other words, he wants to build a strong program, not just a good team this season. That will come only after more talent is added through the Division I transfers (Tristan Spurlock, Josh Crittle and Jeff Jordan) and upcoming recruiting classes (Rod Days, Wayne Martin, Kasey Wilson and potentially others).

But clearly, Jones doesn't want this current season to end. And thousands of Knights fans seem to share that sentiment. A school-record 114,142 (an average of 6,714 per game) filled UCF Arena this season. A staggering 10 of the 15 biggest crowds in school history came this season, showing Tribble that there's a growing belief in the basketball team.

``It's very critical having the fan support behind your team and we're very appreciative of that. If we're going to be an elite program someday we have to have that fan support,'' Tribble said. ``You're talking about a number of fans that not a lot of people ever thought we'd average in the new building. I just think the fan support is vital to our support - in the good times and the bad times. We look forward to bringing that championship to those fans someday.''

In many ways, Wednesday's loss to East Carolina wasn't so much of an end as it was a beginning for a UCF basketball team that's clearly on the rise. With Jordan, Clanton and Sosa back and a greater infusion of talent on the way, there's no reason why the Knights can't play on the final day of the C-USA tournament next March instead departing on the first day like Wednesday.

With UCF's basketball future undeniably bright, there likely won't be a need to hit pause on the remote a year from now. Instead, a fast-forward jump to what lies ahead has to sound quite appealing to Knights fans now.

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