As basketball season approaches at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the Knights look to get off to a fast start this Friday against the University of Massachusetts Minutemen.
While most conference schools are going about their business this preseason, this team has been faced with the task of handling adversity right out of the gate.
There is no doubt that Marcus Jordan’s arrival and shoe controversy has brought a national spotlight upon UCF, but the team will have to face an unexpected amount of attention right away.
For most teams, dealing with attention and adversity is left up to senior leaders and proven players, yet with such a young squad for the Knights, there is no doubt they will need to mature sooner than expected.
All this is coming at an exciting time for UCF basketball. Kirk Speraw, the Knights' head coach, was able to bring in the most highly touted recruiting class in the program’s history by exploiting the talent pool in hometown Orlando and continuing the pipeline of great guards from Chicago.
There is no doubt that Keith Clanton, Jordan, Nik Garcia, and R.J. Scott will be depended on early this season, but all signs show that these freshmen not only bring in talent, but also a great pedigree for winning.
Clanton is the stud of the recruiting class and will likely be asked to fill a starting role immediately. Clanton is a hometown star who spurned bigger basketball programs like South Carolina and Butler to stay and play for the Knights.
He brings raw talent, post scoring, and rebounding to the roster, but perhaps his background for winning will help the Knights the most.
Clanton is a two-time state champion at Orlando Christian Prep and took home MVP honors in winning an AAU National Championship last summer. Clanton achieved this playing with University of Florida freshman standout Kenny Boynton and top-ranked high school senior Brandon Knight from Pine Crest.
While Clanton is the prize of the class, he is not the only frosh that will bring a winning pedigree to the table. Jordan has likely felt pressure all his life from just his name, but in high school he did everything possible to make a name of his own.
He is coming off two trips to the Illinois state finals, finishing as a runner-up with fellow UCF guard A.J. Rompza in 2008 and then leading Whitney Young High School to a state championship in 2009.
Now Jordan will bring his name and skill to Orlando to help out a rebuilding program. Speraw will likely get what is needed out of Jordan, overlooking false expectations from his last name. He will be asked to bring hustle, strong defense, and athleticism to a team that will have a deep bench this season.
With touted guard Dave Diakite returning to the fold after an injury last year, Speraw will not see a step down from athleticism in the wing position.
Diakite won’t be a polished scorer like UCF alum Jermaine Taylor right away, but he will bring the ability to light up the crowd at any moment just as Taylor did.
As a young player, Diakite will be asked to lead right away with other main contributors A.J. Tyler, Isaac Sosa, Taylor Young, and P.J. Gaynor.
Rompza will no doubt be the leader of the squad this season, as he was able to not only step in and start last season, but also excel in leadership at the point guard position. A.J. will need to increase his scoring this season with the departure of Taylor.
Key bench players will likely be Jacob Kusmieruk at the center position, Drew Speraw at guard, and redshirt freshman Amara Thompson in the wing. All three players will likely see good minutes off the bench this year.
The Knights will be tested right away with their season opener against UMass. The head coach for the Minutemen is Derek Kellogg, a former John Calipari assistant who is familiar with the Knights and Conference USA.
Out of conference this season the Knights will be tested against Auburn, as well as going on the road against two tough Big East schools in Notre Dame and UConn in what will surely be three huge games for the program.
In the conference, Memphis will once again be near the top, even after losing Coach Calipari to Kentucky. They will be helped by the transfer of former Duke guard Elliot Williams, who was able to get a waiver and will play immediately for the Tigers.
Likely sitting with the Tigers at the top of C-USA will be Tulsa, led by their star center Jerome Jordan. After the top two teams, the conference could be wide open.
If UCF is able to build momentum with good out of conference play, they could make a push through the conference and possibly into postseason action. Maturity will be a factor, but with the parts beginning to fall in place to build a national power in Orlando, the UCF basketball team will be looking to win fast and often.