College Sports

UCF basketball off to a fast start thanks to a stingy defense and improved offense

Tulsa forward Jeriah Horne (41) stops UCF forward Collin Smith (35) during the Knights’ two-point win Saturday.
Tulsa forward Jeriah Horne (41) stops UCF forward Collin Smith (35) during the Knights’ two-point win Saturday. AP

It has been a strong start to the season for UCF’s men’s basketball team.

The Knights are 14-3, which includes a 4-1 record in the American Athletic Conference. That matches the best start to AAC play in UCF’s history.

And with Wednesday’s road trip to the league’s worst team — Tulane, which is winless in AAC play and has a 4-13 overall record — the Knights are likely to be atop of the AAC heading into Saturday’s test at Memphis.

UCF is a half game behind Houston and Cincinnati for the AAC regular-season title.

So how have the Knights started the 2018-19 season fast?

It begins with the defense, a hallmark of head coach Johnny Dawkins’ tenure in Orlando. In his third season, the Knights are playing lights-out defense just like they did the past two seasons. UCF finished the past two years ranked in the top six for scoring defense. The only other program to do that was Virginia. UCF’s opponents shot 38.1 percent from the floor during that time.

This season, UCF foes are shooting 39 percent against the Knights, who boast the nation’s 24th-best scoring defense at 63.8 points per game.

Offensively, UCF isn’t at the elite level, ranking 158th in scoring offense, but the Knights are averaging 74.5 points per game, which is vastly improved from last season.

“We worked this offseason on offensive efficiency,” Dawkins told the Orlando Sentinel last week. “I thought that was an area that we needed to improve on over last season, and seeing the numbers, I think in pretty much all facets, we’ve improved.

“I didn’t know where we would go with those numbers because we had a number of personnel issues last year with injuries. But seeing it come together where we’ve improved in that area on that side of the ball has been a pleasant surprise for us.”

B.J. Taylor, Aubrey Dawkins (the coach’s son) and 7-6 center Tacko Fall have led the offense, with Taylor averaging 17.1 points per game and Dawkins averaging 16 points per game.

However, the offense sputtered against Tulsa on Saturday. Fall was in foul trouble, which led to sophomore Collin Smith putting together a career-best performance.

Taylor converted free throws as UCF overcame a sluggish offensive performance in the first half (27.9 percent from the field) to eke out a two-point victory.

“They are one of most unusual defenses in our conference,” Dawkins told the Orlando Sentinel. “When you have an unusual defense and you have short turnarounds to prepare for them, it can be difficult, and it was for us.”

CBS projects UCF as an at-large team from the AAC for this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and the Knights boast a solid NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking that replaced the RPI system this year for evaluating different teams.

UCF has the third-best NET ranking among AAC teams heading into Wednesday’s game. The Knights are No. 37 in the country.

Sports reporter Jason has covered high school, college and pro sports since joining the Bradenton Herald in 2010. He’s won Florida Press Club awards for sports feature and column writing. He currently writes college and pro sports stories for the McClatchy East Region real-time team.