In his first year on the job, Johnny Dawkins has helped revitalize the UCF men’s basketball program. Given where the program was just one year ago today, the team’s success this season seems even more impressive.
Head coach Donnie Jones was fired last March after guiding the Knights to a 12-18 record during the 2015-16 season. They had struggled for much of the season and finished by dropping 12 out of their last 14 games. Although injuries were partly to blame for the inconsistent play, the school decided a change was necessary.
Two weeks after letting Jones go, Dawkins was named the team’s new head coach. Dawkins played for four years at Duke and played nine years in the NBA. He was most recently the head coach at Stanford and compiled a 156-115 overall record during his eight years on campus.
As the Knights are set to take on Illinois State Monday night in the second round of the NIT, Dawkins appears to have started to change the culture around the basketball program. Many were unsure of what to expect during his first year on the job, but it’s safe to say that he has answered any questions about how he’d do.
The Knights finished the season with a 21-11 record and are coming off of a win over Colorado in the first round of the NIT last Wednesday. It’s the first postseason berth for the Knights in five years, and the win marked the Knights’ first in the postseason NIT or NCAA Tournament in program history.
“Every program and every team has a beginning and so we’re having our beginning,” Dawkins said. “These things that we’re doing, whether it’s in the conference tournament or whether it’s now in the postseason NIT, [are] all the things that I think will help develop our culture – things that we want to have that will be meaningful for our program. You have to accomplish these things, you have to have signature wins like this in order to move forward and fortunately these guys have had a few this year.”
Regardless of what happens Monday against Illinois State, UCF is in a much better place than it was a year ago. Now at 22-11 on the season, UCF has matched its most wins in a season since 2004-05 when they won 24 games en route to an Atlantic Sun Championship. The team’s 11-7 record in American Athletic Conference play was the best ever in the American.
In addition, they have racked up some impressive wins over the course of the season. Back on February 4, the Knights picked up just their second win all-time versus Memphis. Then, they defeated No. 15 Cincinnati on February 26 for their fourth win all-time versus a ranked opponent and first since defeating No. 4 UConn in 2011.
The Knights also had a memorable performance against No. 3 Villanova at the beginning of the season. Although they lost the game by 10 points, they were able to keep up with the defending national champions for most of that game.
Wednesday night’s rare win over a PAC-12 team was the culmination of hard work for the Knights, and advancing deeper into the NIT would go a long way in helping build for the future.
“It would be great for us because there are only going to be a handful of teams that finish this season with a win,” point guard B.J. Taylor said. “We’ve got a chance to finish the season off with a championship. It’s not the tournament we wanted to be in, but we can’t dwell on the past. We’ve got to move on. We definitely want to send the seniors out the right way.”
A big factor in UCF’s improvement this season has been defense. UCF has one of the best defenses in the nation, holding opponents to 36.4 percent shooting from the field, which ranked No. 1 in the country. In addition, they rank sixth in the country, allowing just 61 points per game, and rank 16th in the country in defending the three-point shot.
A big part of the team’s success on the defensive side of the ball has been sophomore center Tacko Fall. Standing at 7-foot-6, Fall is the team’s anchor on defense and was named the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Fall averaged 11.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game this season.
While the team still has at least one more game to play in the NIT, it’s clear that this season could prove to be the turning point for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2005.
If you would have told Dawkins and the rest of the team at the beginning of the season that they would make the NIT after what the program has been through in the past few seasons, they likely would have taken it.
But now, it’s obvious they have their sights set on even higher aspirations.
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