Men's Hoops Set for Launch as 'Nauts Host No. 8/6 Iowa State

by Ken Landis
UCF Game Notes Iowa State Game Notes Big 12 Conference Notes

ORLANDO – The UCF men’s basketball team looks to string its third consecutive Big 12 Conference victory together and earn its fourth win over a ranked foe this season as it hosts No. 8/6 Iowa State for a 4 p.m. tip on Saturday. The Knights will be known as the Citronauts for this weekend’s contest as UCF hosts its third Space Game on the hardwood. The first two saw out-of-this-world results as the Black and Gold, or in this case the Canaveral Blue and Black, are 2-0 in Space Games.

UCF’s rich history of space exploration first made its way to the hardwood during the 2019-20 season for the first “Space Game” in program history.

The Citronauts, or ‘Nauts for short, topped Tulsa 83-75 on Feb. 9, 2020, behind Darin Green Jr.’s 26 points. The Space Game made its long-awaited return during the 2022-23 campaign with a fresh set of white uniforms with a new ‘Nauts script logo across the chest. The uniforms debuted on Feb. 11, 2023, as the ‘Nauts launched a barrage of threes, netting 17 and setting the single-game record for made three-pointers in school history while beating Tulsa 96-52. Ithiel Horton was the leading scorer on the evening, sinking 20 points while Darius Johnson recorded a 13-point, 10-assist double-double. UCF will be rocking those same white ‘Nauts script logo uniforms on Saturday.

For those that don’t know, UCF was founded in 1963 as Florida Technological University, with a mission of providing personnel to support the growing United States space program at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A remarkable 29% of Kennedy Space Center employees are UCF alumni while 695 NASA projects have some sort of UCF involvement as of Oct. 2022. A total of 18 UCF researchers have asteroids named after them in recognition of their work. Latitude 28.60, which houses NASA’s most historic launch pad, 39A, also lines up exactly with the 50-yard line of FBC Mortgage Stadium and intersects with center court of Addition Financial Arena.


UCF’s expectations, at least according to the Big 12 Preseason Coaches Poll, were everything but destined to reach the stars, with all but one ballot picking the Knights to finish last in the league, the other picking them to finish second to the cellar. Fast forward 15 games into league play and UCF boasts a half-dozen victories, including wins over three ranked foes, a feat never before seen by the program. The Knights opened their Big 12 home slate with a 65-60 win over No. 3 Kansas and added wins over No. 23/24 Oklahoma and No. 23/23 Texas Tech. UCF Head Coach Johnny Dawkins message at the beginning of conference play to his team was “we belong,” and he and the team have proven it throughout the league schedule.

The ’Nauts look to add to their constellation of victories over ranked opponents this season as they host No. 8/6 Iowa State, the 10th top-25 foe faced this season. It will set a new UCF record for most opponents faced in a single campaign, topping the nine games during the 2013-14 season.

Darius Johnson has shone as bright as the stars this season, making massive gains in multiple categories. He is shooting the three-ball 10.2% better this season compared to last and already has a career-high mark in steals and is three away from setting a new best in assists. Johnson has made over 50 triples on the campaign, shooting 37.1% from beyond the arc and 39.7 from the field, also a career best. He has snatched a total of 61 steals, resulting in a 2.26 per game clip which ranks 16th-highest in the nation. He’s recorded nine straight games with multiple steals and has 14 thefts over the last four games.

Johnson led UCF in points last time out against Oklahoma State, scoring 15 points. Shemarri Allen tossed in 14 points of his own while Jaylin Sellers and C.J. Walker also contributed double-digit points, scoring 12 and 10, respectively. Johnson and Sellers combine for 30.7 points in games that UCF wins while the quartet that finished Wednesday’s contest in double digits are four of the Knights’ five highest scorers in games that UCF comes out on top, averaging 45.9 points per win.

Despite the solid output on the offensive side of the ball, it has been UCF’s defense that has carried the Knights to this point. UCF ranks 10th in defense according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index and 12th according to KenPom. The Knights have been consistently ranked in the top 50 nationally in steals, blocks, turnovers forced and points against per game since the season really got rolling.

Iowa State has built its resume on the same defensive principles. The Cyclones, who enter the contest with an overall record of 22-6 and an 11-4 mark in conference play, rank in the top 10 in three major defensive categories. Iowa State snatches 10.5 steals per game, a mark that’s fifth in the country, leading to a 17.75 turnovers forced per game clip, ranking third in the nation. The Cyclones hold opponents to 62.3 points per game, an average that ranks seventh in the NCAA.

Iowa State has earned victories in seven of its last eight contests, the only loss coming on the road to then-No. 2 Houston. The Cyclones are an impressive 17-0 on the road but have gone 4-4 in true road games and 5-6 when including neutral site contests.

The Cyclones have four members of their squad who average double-digit points, led by Keshon Gilbert with 13.9 points per contest and shooting 45.2% from the floor. Behind him is Tamin Lipsey at 12.7 points per game, followed by Milan Momcilovic with 11.5 and Curtis Jones with 10.3. The four combine for 450 of Iowa State’s 525 three-point attempts this season, with all four averaging north of 33% from three-point land. Six Cyclones have compiled 20 or more steals this season, helping in their top five ranking.

UCF and Iowa State have never met on the hardwood, with Saturday’s Space Game being the first meeting. The Knights are 2-3 this season against teams they have faced in conference play for the first time, with wins over No. 3 Kansas and Texas.