John Denton's Knights Insider: Battle 4 Atlantis to Provide Tests

Nov. 23, 2011

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By John Denton

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (UCFAthletics.com) - Still missing one player, but somewhat whole for the first time all season, UCF is hoping to use the prestigious Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas as a proving ground for its legitimacy as an elite basketball team.

Head coach Donnie Jones hoped his team would be far ahead of schedule early in the season after spending a week in Canada over the summer playing three exhibition games. But early-season suspensions to Marcus Jordan, A.J. Rompza, P.J. Gaynor and Josh Crittle hampered those hopes, causing the Knights to often play short-handed. All of those players except Rompza (scheduled to return on Dec. 30) are back, giving UCF (2-1) the belief that Thursday's game against College of Charleston (3-0) will be the start of their ascent.

``College of Charleston made the postseason last year and could make the NCAAs this year, so it will give us a great indication of where we are as a team,'' Jones said. ``We finally have everybody other than A.J. (Rompza) back for the first time. This will give us the chance to show our depth and play much better than we did against Florida State.''

College of Charleston defeated Clemson last week and will present a difficult challenge to the Knights, who begin the eight-team, three-day tournament Thursday at 2 p.m. The UCF-College of Charleston game will be televised nationally by Versus Network.

If UCF wins it could very well be facing defending national champion UConn, which opens against UNC-Asheville. If the Knights win on Thanksgiving Day, they will play Friday at 2 p.m. and if they lose they will play at 7 p.m. The Knights are eager to show that they belong in a star-studded field that features two ranked teams (No. 4 UConn and No. 20 Florida State) and another (College of Charleston) seemingly on the verge of cracking the national polls.

``This is going to give us a good chance to play against some really good teams. We're going to give it our all and hopefully we can come out with some wins,'' sophomore guard Isaiah Sykes said. ``This tournament just gives us the chance to go out and get better and see where we are as a team. It's about trying to go down there and get better as a team.''

Sykes' role was adjusted the most early in the season because of the suspensions. A defensive-minded small forward last season, Sykes has had to play the role of a playmaking point guard early in the year. He responded by averaging 11 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists in the first three games, but he's happy to see the return of some reinforcements.

``It's been real tiring not having guys and weird playing different positions all of the time. You have to know all of the spots and you have to be really focused,'' Sykes said. ``It's been a good challenge for me (playing point guard). We've played some teams with good ball pressure, so it's been something to let me know what I need to work on and where I need to get better.'' The Knights looked a lot better against High Point last week, winning 84-72 behind big games from Keith Clanton (20 points and 15 rebounds) and Jordan (21 points and four assists). There were also big contributions from Crittle (10 points in 14 minutes) and Gaynor (eight points and four rebounds in 20 minutes), allowing UCF to show off the depth that Jones feels will be one of this team's best strengths.

``Josh has practiced well and he was anxious to get out there and give us great energy for us. And he has the ability to score for us and we saw that with him scoring 10 points in 14 minutes,'' Jones said. ``And with P.J., we need his offense and energy. He played well this summer, and hopefully he's getting back into the energy and flow.''

Jones is eager to see how his team responds to playing some of the best teams in the country. Defeating College of Charleston will likely come down to slowing power forward Antwaine Wiggins, who is averaging 19 points and 6.3 rebounds a game. Jones said this tournament should give the Knights a solid indication of what kind of team that they can be this season.

``I thought we'd be ahead of schedule coming in, but we've had some guys who had to sit out at the start. We've had to juggle a lot of different lineups and positions and that's thrown our chemistry off a little bit,'' Jones said. ``But right now we're trying to get guys back into their spots and playing together. We have a chance here in this tournament at a neutral site with three games with shortened periods of time between them. We'll be playing against three really good teams and we just have to take them one at a time.''

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