Despite low preseason expectations, UCF Men’s Basketball impressing early on

By virtually any measure, 2019-20 was going to be a very tough year for UCF Basketball. The Knights may have been coming off their best season in school history, but would have to replace Tacko Fall, B.J. Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins. Add in an AAC that’s looking as tough as ever and 10 players on the roster who had never played for the team, and it’s not hard to see why UCF was picked to finish as one of the worst teams in the conference.

“Chemistry is something that kind of evolves and each group is different with regards to that,” Coach Johnny Dawkins had said before the start of the season. “We’re gonna be patient with that, understanding that it’s a process for these guys to learn each other.”

Early in the season, the Knights have certainly looked like a squad that’s still molding its identity and finding ways to play together. But all that is more forgivable given that the team has matched its best start through nine games since joining the AAC, posting a 7-2 record thanks to a four-game winning streak.

In the previous two AAC seasons that UCF started that well, the Knights went to the NIT Final Four in one and the second round of the NCAA Tournament in the other.

To be clear, lofty goals such as those are still a long way off for this year’s team. UCF is just 2-2 against teams that currently have a winning record, and things will certainly get much tougher when conference play gets underway in a couple weeks. Seven of the AAC’s 12 teams have matched the Knights’ 7-2 record or done better.

But regardless of how the rest of the year shapes up, the Knights have already shown a resilience beyond anything that was expected of them. Alabama transfer Dazon Ingram has come in to have an immediate and commanding impact, leading the team in assists and rebounds while also chipping in 10 points a game.

Collin Smith, who averaged just 8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game last season, has stepped up to become a huge part of the team, averaging about 15 points and 6 rebounds a game on 56 percent shooting. UCF needed its new roster to be up to the task of filling the void left by so many graduated stars. And a roster made up mainly of new or unproven players have delivered.

The Knights will soon have a chance to prove what this start was really worth, with a road game against Oklahoma coming up before conference play opens with three teams that are a combined 20-5. But that stretch of games certainly looks less daunting than it did two months ago when UCF was still just another team full of new faces.

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Christian Simmons is the founder and editor of Knight Sports Now. You can follow him on Twitter at @ByCASimmons.