John Denton's Knights Insider: Chemistry Leading to On-Court Success for Knights

Feb. 17, 2012

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - The mass text message will usually roll in about 10 p.m. and by midnight when UCF senior point guard A.J. Rompza walks into the gymnasium there will be 10 or 12 of his teammates getting up shots.

The late-night shooting sessions, the team dinners in Orlando and the way most of the of UCF's basketball squad will pile into one hotel room on the road to watch a game or movie speaks to the chemistry on the team. And to a man, UCF's players believe that tight bond between the players is a big reason why the team is in the midst now of a special season.

``This year, it's been the closest this team has ever been,'' said Rompza, a senior starter for the Knights much of the past four seasons. ``Since I've been here there has been different cliques and certain people hanging out with one another, but this year everyone gets along. That is leading to our success on the court, being so close off the court.''

The Knights (18-7 overall and 7-4 in Conference USA play) have certainly had plenty of success this season and they are hoping that a strong finish to the regular season and a run in the C-USA tourney will result in a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The chances of doing those things increase if UCF can stay in the top four of the C-USA standings, meaning the Knights need to win Saturday night when they host East Carolina (12-12 and 3-8). A top-four seed would mean a first-round bye in the C-USA Tournament (March 7-10 in Memphis) and the Knights know now is the time to begin making a serious push.

``We all know how the middle of the season went last year and nobody wants to end in the middle of the pack or just be average this season,'' UCF sophomore forward Tristan Spurlock said. ``I think that's why you see us buckling down now and practices are getting more intense. We all know it's time to make that push.''

UCF is making that push by pulling in closer as a team. The squad's special bond started over the summer when head coach Donnie Jones had the Knights play three exhibition games in Canada. The 10 practices in Orlando and week-long trip North of the border was more about team-building exercises than it was getting better on the court.

And that trip seems to have done wonders for a UCF team that is put together with several different kinds of parts. Josh Crittle and Spurlock transferred in last year, C.J. Reed and Calvin Newell transferred in before this season and are sitting out and there are three freshmen on the roster. P.J. Gaynor and Rompza are the team's only seniors, while the team leans heavily on the core of Marcus Jordan, Keith Clanton, Isaiah Sykes and Spurlock.

Spurlock, who transferred into UCF from Virginia prior to last season, said the summer trip to Canada did wonders for team chemistry.

``It's a lot like a family around here. We don't get along every single minute of every single day, but we do a good job of communicating with one another and pushing each other's buttons. We've been around one another for about two years now with all of the transfers and our nucleus is pretty tight,'' Spurlock said. ``This summer helped out a lot with everybody being down here and going to Canada together. Everybody trusts one another. We're a family in the sense of knowing one another, when to argue and when not to and how to push one another.''

UCF's willingness to share the ball and share the limelight shoes up in the statistics. Four different players have led the team in scoring this season. Jordan (15.3 points per game) and Clanton (15 ppg) lead the way, but they seem to take turns leading the team. Sykes (12.2 ppg) is one of the most improved players in the nation and is coming off a game against Southern Miss in which he poured in a game-high 27 points. Spurlock (8.1 ppg) has evolved into UCF's best shooter, while Rompza (6.5 ppg) is UCF's on-court leader.

The Knights put a lot of stock into the late-night shooting sessions that have helped the team come together as one.

``There will just be a mass text sent out and there's no pressure and you don't have to come if you don't want to. But you just feel like if you can get a few more shots up it will help the team,'' said Spurlock, who has made 30 3-pointers this season. ``It's nothing for me to go in there and there be nine or 10 guys. We'll sit around and talk or get on the (shooting machine) and get up about a thousand shots. Just all of us being in there together helps a lot.''

And Rompza said UCF's special chemistry helps most when the team is on the road. With thousands of often rowdy fans in the stands wanting to see them fail, UCF's players often adopt a us-against-the-world mentality, knowing the only people they can depend on are their fellow teammates and coaches.

``We go into every game like that, eliminating the officials and the fans and it's just about the people in our circle,'' Rompza said. ``In years past somebody on the team might blame somebody else, but now we come back into the locker room after games, talk about what we did wrong and we bounce back. We learn from mistakes and we don't point our fingers. We're very much together as a team and it shows.''

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