John Denton's Knights Insider: Sophomores Make Strides for UCF

March 7, 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) - Marcus Jordan and Keith Clanton are undeniably the face of UCF's basketball team and as they go on the court, so does their team with them. They are the team's two leading scorers and easily the most dynamic playmakers - Jordan on the outside with his passing and Clanton on the inside with his rebounding.

But this is the point where it is necessary to inject a qualifier: both Jordan and Clanton are just sophomores. Though they are still early in the growing process as basketball players, they have been asked to shoulder so much of the load for UCF's 19-10 basketball team. And the two All-Conference-USA performers - Jordan made the second-team, while Clanton was a third-teamer - give the Knights hopes of making some noise at this week's C-USA tournament in El Paso, Texas.

``I've been growing up my whole life before I had to,'' said Jordan. ``Keith and I have talked about how we have to be consistent for this team. Pretty much everybody on the team feeds off of us and if we have a bad night it could be a bad night for the team. We've had to grow up fast, take that leadership role at an early age and set the pace with our work ethic every day.''

Much because their best players are just sophomores, the Knights have endured a wildly erratic season. They won the first 14 games of the season to reach the national rankings for the first time in school history. An eight-game drought followed, but UCF dug itself out of that slump by winning five of seven games down the stretch.

They now head into Wednesday's 1 p.m. EST game against eighth-seeded East Carolina with the hopes that their late-season momentum will allow them make a deep tournament surge like early in the season.

``I feel like we have a really good momentum heading into the conference tournament and I feel like we're playing with more confidence now that we had when we were in our losing streak,'' Clanton said. ``I think everybody is playing more together and sharing the ball. Now, we have a better chance of winning and doing well.''

UCF has three seniors in Tom Herzog, A.J. Tyler and Taylor Young, but those three have been used mostly in reserve roles this season. That has left much of the leadership roles on the shoulders of the 6-foot-3 Jordan and the 6-foot-8 Clanton. Both players made big improvements this season - Jordan as a one-on-one scorer and Clanton as a finisher inside - but head coach Donnie Jones has also asked for the two players to be more vocal and more giving toward their teammates this season.

``Those guys had high expectations put on them because we played so well early on. This is only the second team they've been on and if you look at the teams doing well in our conference it's because they have veterans,'' Jones said. ``Both Marcus and Keith have handled a lot for us and have competed every night. The experience that they've gotten has been incredible and they are undoubtedly the foundation of this program.''

Jones said much of this first season with the UCF program for him has been about finding out the talent, character and toughness of his team. The season has provided a little bit of every scenario what with the long winning streak and the losing skid, and he likes how UCF stayed strong and has finished well. He's leaned particularly hard on Jordan and Clanton, and knows now they can be elite players for UCF in the future.

``We haven't developed that internal leadership all the way to the level we need it yet, but it's because we're young and we have a new coach. It's a process,'' he said. ``When you go through prosperity and adversity that's where you find out about your leaders - and we've had both big-time prosperity and some real tough times this season. That's when you find out who can really stand up and lead, and Keith and Marcus have kept fighting this year.''

Jordan boosted his scoring average from 8.0 as a freshman to 15.9 points per game this season by dramatically changing his body and improving his jump shot. He had 18 points in UCF's early-season upset of Florida and was the MVP of the Metro PCS Orange Bowl Classic with 23 points and five assists in the defeat of Miami. He had 26 points against Marshall for UCF's first conference win of the season and in the dramatic victory against Southern Miss earlier this month Jordan scored 20 points and his pass set up A.J. Rompza's game-winning shot.

And Jordan has done it all while playing most of the season with injuries to both ankles and his right big toe.

``Injury-wise, I'm getting healthier every day. I'm not 100 percent right, but I'm still trying to go out there and give 100 percent effort,'' he said. ``I had both of my ankles sprained and my big toe hurt, so it's been like I'm playing on no feet all season. But all I can do is go out there and keep fighting.''

UCF's coaches have been fighting all season to get the mild-mannered Clanton to play more aggressively and seek out shots. Immensely skilled, Clanton seems to enter games looking to set up his teammates in the first half and looking more for his shots in the second half. That's why some of his biggest performances of the season have come after halftime.

``The coaches have told me at times that I was playing with too much finesse and that I needed to play more aggressive,'' Clanton said. ``I've never looked at myself as not being aggressive; I'm just trying to be a team player, but if they want me to be more aggressive I'll do whatever I need to do to help the team.''

Like with Jordan, Clanton said he's had to fast forward the growth process because he is looked to on this young team to deliver every night. He thinks he's better for having been thrust in the proverbial fire at such a young age and forced to become more forceful and more of a leader.

``Marcus and I have had to grow up a little quicker than most sophomores, but that's been good for us. I still feel like I have a lot to learn and get better on though,'' said Clanton, who is second on the team in scoring (13.9 ppg) and leads the team in rebounding (8.2 rpg). ``Coach Jones wants me to be more vocal and breathe life into the team. I've tried to talk more and be a better teammate. I was talking more than when we were winning. I knew that when we were struggling that I needed to step up more. It's a process, and I think I've gotten better at it.''

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