John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF Hoping for Postseason Invite

March 10, 2012

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By John Denton

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UCFAthletics.com) - The Knights' appearance in the Conference USA Championship semifinals at the FedExForum earlier this week represented a step forward for UCF's men's basketball program.

The appearance in the Conference USA semifinals was a first for UCF since the school joined the league in 2005. It came at the end of a season full of firsts and one that includes 22 victories, most notably over defending national champion Connecticut and Memphis.

The hope, of course, is that the Knights still have plenty of basketball left to play with the NIT expected to come calling Sunday night. By then, the fourth-seeded Knights hope to have forgotten Friday's 83-52 loss to top-seeded Memphis. Late Friday, UCF preferred to focus on the accomplishments of the season rather than a disappointing performance against Memphis.

``We had a lot of firsts this year, we had a great win over UConn and we made it to the semifinals for the first time in school history,'' UCF coach Donnie Jones said. ``We've done a lot of good things. We return a major part of our team for next year, just losing P.J. (Gaynor) and A.J. (Rompza). We have a chance to make big strides this summer coming into next year.''

Before they totally move ahead to next season, the Knights (22-10) hope their dreams of playing in the postseason come true. With five victories against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season and two Top 50 wins, the Knights are hoping they have done enough to earn at least a home game in the NIT. That game could come Tuesday or Wednesday night at UCF Arena - where the Knights were a school-best 16-1 this season.

The NIT Selection Show airs on ESPNU at 9 p.m. Sunday night.

Standout power forward Keith Clanton, a first-team all-conference pick this season, is desperately hoping to play more basketball this season so that he can forget about Friday's lopsided loss. Clanton scored just five points and didn't snag his first rebound until the game was 32 minutes old. He stressed that Friday's defeat shouldn't define UCF's team based on its entire body of work throughout the season.

``If we get a chance to play in the postseason we want to play for our seniors. This could be A.J. and P.J.'s last time playing with us, so we still have something to play for,'' Clanton said. ``I feel like we need that chance to show that we're a better team than we played today. We know we can play harder and more aggressive and compete with any team, but we didn't compete like we know how today.''

Much like last season when it entered the national rankings for the first time in school history, UCF showed major signs of progress this season. UCF won on the road at UAB and SMU for the first time in school history. In fact, they ended a 0-7 run against UAB by beating the Blazers three times, the final one coming Thursday in the C-USA tourney to reach the semifinals. The Knights also stunned C-USA powerhouse Memphis in Orlando on Jan. 18, setting off a wild celebration where fans and students rushed the court. The only home loss of the season - and of the past 14 months, really - was to second-seeded Southern Miss.

``I'm proud of this team and what it has accomplished this year,'' Jones said. ``I'm proud of our seniors, A.J. Rompza and P.J. Gaynor, and what they gave to our team.

``We come into (Friday) with a (No.) 50 RPI and this game doesn't define who we are,'' Jones continued. ``We have 22 wins, two top 50 wins and we've won 11 games in this league. What we have done all year long will hopefully be enough to get us a NIT bid.''

Despite their progress, the Knights entered this season with high hopes and dreams of getting to the NCAA Tournament. They were able to salvage a poor second half of the season last year with a run to the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational tournament. Now, they will try to do the same hopefully in the NIT. A chance to get to New York City's Madison Square Garden, site of the NIT's Final Four, would show that significant progress has been made this season.

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