Central Florida coach Donnie Jones said he was told to stay quiet about the Knights possibly going to the Big East in the future.
Well, he doesn’t have to say much at all anymore. On Friday afternoon, his players did the talking for him at the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal at Paradise Island in the Bahamas.
The Knights stunned No. 4 Connecticut 68-63 after being down 17 with 16 minutes to go in the second half. UCF has been mentioned for months as a possible addition to the Big East, and if that does indeed happen, the men's basketball team has introduced itself quite well to defending national champion UConn, which saw its 16-game winning streak come to an end in stunning fashion.
“We can’t talk about the Big East, but this is good for our school, absolutely,’’ Jones said by phone from the Atlantis on Friday. “We’re still building our team, but we’re establishing who we are and the identity we want to play. Our guys are a year [older]. They’ve played in this system. Hopefully our two best players will play well -- Marcus Jordan and Keith Clanton -- and they did. The other guys gave great effort, [even though] it may not show up on the stat sheet."
In the second half, the Knights went to a zone defense after made baskets and man-to-man following misses to keep the Huskies off balance. It worked. UConn was 2-of-18 on 3s as star wing Jeremy Lamb made the only two for the Huskies.
“It was very effective,’’ Jordan said. “When we got in the huddle [down 17 at the 16-minute mark], we talked about winning every four-minute scrimmage from media timeout to media timeout. Our attitude was to go out and win every four minutes.’’
Watching the second half, it was hard to believe this was the same team that lost by 23 at Florida State just two weeks ago.
“That game was a lot to do with us, with our attitude,’’ said Jordan, who along with Clanton scored 20 points each. “We went in there, we didn’t make shots, we weren’t playing hard on defense. We dug down since then and made sure we were dedicated to playing defense. It's a great win.’’
As good a vibe as the Knights are feeling Friday in the Bahamas, it’s hard not to consider what occurred last season.
This is the same program that beat Florida on a neutral court last season, started out 14-0 and was ranked a school-high No. 18.
This is the same program that finished last season 21-12, 6-10 in Conference USA. And while they still did get a CBI invite, the Knights were a huge disappointment in league play.
This also is the same program that has been under investigation by the NCAA and the same program that has point guard A.J. Rompza suspended until Dec. 30 for extra benefits.
And Jones is the same coach who, like Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun, will have to sit out the team's first three games of the conference season as a result of violations.
The investigation, the suspension of Rompza and the blowout loss to FSU brought dark days to Central Florida. But the Connecticut win certainly gives a lift to this team regardless of what occurs in Saturday's final against Harvard, which upset Florida State in Friday's second game. At the very least, it will make tracking the Knights the rest of the way that much more intriguing.
“Last year, we had never been there, and a lot of guys weren’t ready to be 14-0 and got complacent,’’ Jordan said. “Everyone thought it would be so easy and we would be an automatic into the NCAA tournament. Now we know how hard it is to get back there and how hard it is to get there. We’ve got the attitude that we still expect to win every game. This was a great win. We’re not paying attention to what is going on outside of basketball.’’
If Friday's game is any indication, the Knights must once again be considered a team that can contend with Memphis and Marshall and possibly Tulsa near the top of Conference USA.
“There is a lot of parity and a lot of good coaches in our league and Memphis will be there,’’ Jones said. “We have to do a good job of continuing to represent our conference well. We know we have to bring it every night.’’
That’s exactly what the Huskies learned in this early portion of the season. UConn is still tinkering with its starting lineup, inserting Andre Drummond over Alex Oriakhi in the middle, which was just a matter of time.
On Friday, Lamb was off. Shabazz Napier wasn’t himself at the point with five assists and seven turnovers. And the Huskies didn’t get much from the role players.
Having Ryan Boatright, a scoring playmaker off the bench, eligible for the first time (after a six-game NCAA suspension for extra benefits) against FSU in the third-place game certainly will help this team.
UConn will be fine. The Huskies will still challenge for the Big East title and a spot in the Final Four. The more relevant question after Friday is: Will UCF be able to remain relevant or fade big time like last season?
"We can build on this [victory]," Jones said, "and we’ll build off of the way we handled last year’s experience.’’