John Denton's Knights Insider: Knights to Face Challenges at Marshall

March 4, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - When UCF last met Conference USA rival Marshall, the Knights were a perfect 13-0 and had climbed into the national rankings. Certainly a lot has happened since UCF's Jan. 5 defeat of the Thundering Herd, but the two teams will square off again on Saturday with the Knights on a similarly strong roll.

The mission now for the Knights (19-9 overall and 6-9 in Conference USA play) is to go into one of C-USA's toughest venues to play, battle through the expected emotions of head coach Donnie Jones' return to his former school and get another victory that will propel them into next week's conference tournament.

That, more than any hoopla revolving Jones' return to Marshall, is the Knights' biggest focus.

``We understand that it's going to be a pretty hostile environment for the situation that it is, but we're trying to get to 20 wins,'' said UCF junior guard Isaac Sosa, who was named to the C-USA All-Academic team with a 3.55 grade-point average and is averaging 8.7 points a game on the court. ``There has only been (one UCF) team ever to get to 20 wins when playing in this league, so we're trying to accomplish that. It's going to be a very tough game, but it's going to get us prepared for the tournament.''

In a season that's been as erratic as actor Charlie Sheen's bizarre public behavior of late, UCF has come out of a midseason lull with an impressive closing kick. The Knights face Marshall (20-10, 8-7) having won five of their last games. UCF recently knocked both UTEP and Southern Miss out of first place in the C-USA and surged past SMU in the second half on Wednesday for another victory.

Jones considers UCF's solid turnaround following an eight-game skid as impressive as the 14-0 start to the season.

``What we've done is important for our program - not only for the now, but also for the future,'' Jones said. ``We learned a lot about our guys. We regrouped them and it's a credit to them because they hung in there through tough times. It's hard to do that, especially when you have a team with a new coach. But they have continued to work and they've had good attitudes. They've really persevered and I'm really proud of them.''

UCF has put itself in position for its first postseason berth since joining C-USA and can strengthen the résumé with another defeat of Marshall and a strong run in the league tournament, which begins Wednesday in El Paso. The Knights have more victories against Top 100 RPI schools (seven) than ever before in school history. They have climbed to 53rd in the CBSSports.com RPI poll, while their schedule is ranked as the 47th toughest in the country.

Winning at Marshall will be difficult considering the Herd's success at home and the emotion surrounding the game. Marshall is 13-3 at home and has won five of six overall down the stretch. Jones, a West Virginia native, is plenty familiar with the surroundings, having coached at Marshall for three years prior to taking the job at UCF last spring. He knows emotions will run high for his first return where he used to coach, but he's tried to keep the focus on his players and the Knights' pursuit of a 20th victory.

``Going into there is a tough atmosphere and a tough environment. They've won some big games at home by a big margin. They beat Southern Miss bad and they beat Memphis bad. We know it'll be a difficult environment,'' Jones said. ``It's always going to be emotional going back, but we have a lot of respect for those people in Huntington and they've always been great to me. I'm looking forward to going back and seeing my family. I know it's going to be a tough game, but we knew this game was finally coming. But to play against a tough team like Marshall, it will be difficult.''

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