Coming off one of the most successful seasons in program history, things are trending up for Johnny Dawkins and the 2017 UCF men’s basketball team.
Behind the nation’s top field goal defense in 2016, UCF went 24-12, finished fourth in the AAC and capped off the season with an appearance in the NIT final four.
Despite losing key players in seniors Matt Williams, Tank Efianayi and Nick Banyard, the Knights will look to make the jump to the NCAA tournament in 2017, partially because of their influx of newcomers.
Only having seven scholarship players available last season, the Knights struggled with depth. That is something the newly eligible group players, or “Grey Squad” are hoping to remedy.
The “Grey Squad” is composed of sophomores Terrell Allen, Dayon Griffin, Rokas Ulvydas, and junior Aubrey Dawkins, who all sat out last season as part of the NCAA transfer rules. Freshman Ceasar DeJesus, who was unavailable for academic reasons and sophomore Chance McSpadden, who was recovering from an ACL injury, also made up part of the squad.
Along with the Grey Squad, UCF has three incoming recruits: Myles Douglas, Daniel Lewis and Kani Coles, bringing the total number of new players to nine.
Allen, a transfer from Drexel, will be a welcomed ball-handler to a backcourt that was one of the worst in the nation in terms of assists and turnovers last season. Dawkins and Griffin, transfers from Michigan and Louisiana Tech respectively, as well as DeJesus and McSpadden will all look to replace the offensive production lost from graduated senior and now Miami Heat summer league invitee Matt Williams.
Dawkins and McSpadden are both exceptional shooters, as well as very capable defenders. DeJesus and Griffin’s value comes from their offensive abilities. Both are slashers, however, Griffin could end up being the team’s best shooter.
The 6-foot-11-inch Ulvydas brings an offensive game missing from the current UCF frontcourt. His ability to spread the floor with his shooting brings a nice contrast to the current defensive nature of his counterparts.
But the Knights will also return four key players from last season in sophomore guard B.J. Taylor, forwards senior A.J. Davis and junior Chad Brown and junior center Tacko Fall.
Taylor, coming off an all-AAC second team campaign, where he averaged 17.4 points per game, will look to continue his success from last season. The same goes for Davis, who despite seeing a reduction in scoring, saw his defensive and ball-handling responsibilities expand. Brown will look to build upon a productive season, in which he saw his minutes increase from 62 in 2015 to 472 in 2016.
After testing NBA waters, Fall will return to UCF looking to improve his offensive game and draft stock after a standout season that culminated with AAC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
As a team, UCF has NCAA Tournament aspirations. That begins with a much-improved non-conference schedule, which includes potential top-25 teams in Alabama and Missouri, which will feature the nation’s top high school recruit, Michael Porter Jr.
The conference schedule also looks to be tougher with perennial top-25 team and conference newcomer Wichita State on the schedule twice. In addition to the Shockers, the Knights have SMU, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Memphis, Temple and USF on the schedule twice. They will host Houston and Tulane once, while traveling to East Carolina and Tulsa for their only games with them.
The Knights will have a tougher schedule, but given their additions and another off-season working with Dawkins’ system, there is good reason for optimism and high expectations.