Men's Hoops Set for First Round of NIT Action at Florida

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ORLANDO – The UCF men's basketball team is set for the first round of the NIT as they'll face Florida on Wednesday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. It's the first time since 2012 that the two teams will face off on the hardwood.

The Knights fought valiantly in the American Athletic Conference Championship, coming back from a 13-point deficit against SMU to win their first-round game 76-70. The Black and Gold erased a 10-point halftime margin in the quarterfinals but ultimately couldn't overcome the eventual tournament champions of Memphis.

C.J. Kelly led the way offensively for the Knights in The American tournament, averaging 24.5 points per game, scoring 21 in round one and 28 in the quarterfinals. He went seven-for-eight from beyond the three-point arc, an 87.6% clip. From the floor, Kelly shot 65.2%, sinking 15-of-23 and adding another 12 points on 13 tries from the charity stripe. He showed an ability to flip a switch in the second half, posting 18 vs. SMU and 19 against Memphis. Kelly has been in double figures for seven straight contests and a total of 21 times throughout the year.

Ithiel Horton, Darius Johnson and Taylor Hendricks all averaged double-digits in Fort Worth as well, posting 12.5, 12.0 and 10.0 clips, respectively. Horton and Kelly combined for 29 of UCF's final 35 points against SMU in the road to a comeback.

With this year's participation in the NIT, UCF has now been to three postseason tournaments under head coach Johnny Dawkins. Prior to this year, he led the Black and Gold to the NIT in his first season as the Knights' head coach in 2016-17 and later the NCAA Tournament in 2018-19. The Knights earned their first NCAA Tournament victory that season, beating eighth-seeded VCU 73-58 before nearly upsetting top-seeded Duke in the Round of 32.

The berth into this year's NIT joins UCF's previous appearances in 2011-12 and 2016-17. The Black and Gold reached their most recent NIT by going 21-11 during the regular season and marched all the way to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden after beating Colorado and Illinois at home and Illinois State on the road. UCF fell to future Big 12 opponent TCU in the semifinals that year. The 2011-12 season saw the Knights earn their way to the NIT after a 21-9 regular season and its only trip to the Conference USA semifinals.

In all, UCF has been to five NCAA Tournaments and three NITs. Four of the Knights' NCAA appearances were following Atlantic Sun Championships in 1994, 1996, 2004 and 2005, while the most recent was via an at-large berth in 2019.

The Knights continue to light it up from three-point land and are ranked 40th nationally and second in The American in three pointers per game, sinking 8.9 per game. The mark is the highest during the Dawkins era and the best in at least the last 10 seasons.  Not only is UCF making a lot of threes, but they are defending the three at a great rate as well, holding opponents to 31.3%, a clip that's 48th in the nation and fourth in The American.
UCF's five-point loss to Memphis in The American quarterfinals was the 12th loss of the season by single digits. The Knights have lost six total contests by one possession and are ranked fourth-to-last in KenPom's luck rating, making them one of the unluckiest teams in college basketball.

Strangely enough, Florida has had similar bad luck this season, ranking 330th of 363 in KenPom's luck rating. Ten of the Gators' 16 losses are by single digits while five have been by one possession. Florida is 16-16 on the year including a 9-9 mark in SEC play. Despite the lack of luck in close games, the Gators have had some signature wins, beating then-No. 2 Tennessee on Feb. 1 67-54 and No. 20 Missouri 73-64.

Florida has lost seven of its last 10 contests and have been without their leading scorer, Colin Castleton, since Feb. 15 due to a broken hand. Since then, the Gators have lost four of six. Castleton averaged 16 points per game on the year and added 7.7 boards per contest. Aside from Castleton, Will Richard leads the team in scoring with 10.6 points per game and is followed closely by Riley Kuegel, Kyle Lofton and Kowacie Reeves, averaging 9.8, 8.9 and 8-7 points per contest, respectively. Kuegel has averaged 18 points per game over the Gators' last three contests.

UCF's Dawkins has found success against in-state schools in his tenure at the helm of the Knights, going 21-8 since his arrival.

Both teams have a May brother on the roster, as Charlie of UCF and Jack of Florida have a chance to be in the same arena for the first time on the college stage.

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