The UCF men’s basketball team returns to Addition Financial Arena on Wednesday night for the first time since March, hosting Robert Morris to open the 2021-22 season.
The 2020-21 season was undeniably a difficult one for the Knights. With some new faces, it was inevitably going to take time for everything to come together. But then the COVID-19 pandemic caused two breaks in the season, preventing anyone from really finding much of a rhythm until the end of the season.
UCF finished last year with an 11-12 overall record and an 8-10 mark in AAC play. On the surface, that doesn’t look good. But Johnny Dawkins’ team was sitting at 4-9 overall and 2-8 in conference play at one point, so recovering to win six of the last eight games on the schedule before going 1-1 in the conference tournament meant the Knights were able to salvage something out of what could’ve been a really, really bad year.
Now, heading into a new season, there is plenty of optimism surrounding Dawkins and his squad. Here are three reasons to get excited about the Knights’ return to the hardwood:
A chance to build off of last year’s stretch run
Last season felt very much like a season of “what ifs” for UCF. The three-game non-conference run was largely successful for the Knights, who picked up a win over Auburn, hung around early on the road at Michigan and ended Florida State’s 27-game home winning streak a couple of weeks later. That win over the Seminoles was, at the time, a top-15 road win against a team that went on to reach the Sweet 16. Things were looking good early on for UCF.
Then, conference play came. It started off well enough, with UCF beating Cincinnati before giving No. 6 Houston a bit of a scare. A frustrating loss at South Florida then preceded a COVID-induced pause in the season, leaving the Knights a chance to get in just about two practices in a 10-day span before they finally played another game, which they lost at Temple. After the pause, the team lost six of its next seven games to drop to a low point in the year. Call it an excuse if you want, but there aren’t many teams that can go that long without playing together and still look like a cohesive unit. Add in the fact that many of the team’s players were still learning to play together and you have a problem.
But finally, UCF managed to find its stride down the stretch. The Knights won six of their final eight regular season games, and both losses came by one point. It was obvious that Dawkins and his team really grew as the season came to a close, even getting back to .500 at 11-11 with a win over ECU in the first round of the AAC Tournament before putting up a resilient fight in a losing effort against Memphis in the quarterfinals a day later. So, despite finishing 11-12 overall and 8-10 in AAC play, UCF ended last season on a pretty impressive note.
Now, eight months later, the Knights are looking to pick up where they left off. And the key factor working in their favor is that they’re returning their entire starting five, giving them stability they didn’t have for much of last season. Between Brandon Mahan, Isaiah Adams, C.J. Walker, Darin Green Jr., Darius Perry and Dre Fuller, UCF has plenty of high-impact talent coming back in 2021-22. Add in four-star guard Darius Johnson and UNLV transfer forward Cheikh Mbacke Diong and you have an impressive core that should be ready to take the next step this season.
An exciting (and complete) schedule full of marquee games
While UCF still managed to play a pretty impressive three-game non-conference schedule last year, losing out on a season opener against Oklahoma due to COVID-19 issues was a downer, as was the fact that non-conference play was so limited. The good news is, the Knights have a full 29-game schedule this year, including an 11-game non-conference slate that is loaded with intriguing matchups.
After Wednesday’s season opener against Robert Morris, UCF will play an in-state contest at Miami on Saturday. After the cancellation of last year’s game, Oklahoma will finally make the trip to Orlando on Nov. 27 before the Knights hit the road to play at Auburn on Dec. 1. The final stretch of non-conference play will then be an exciting one, with a game against Florida State in the Orange Bowl Classic on Dec. 18 and a home game against Michigan on Dec. 30.
AAC play is sure to be full of high-profile matchups as well. Memphis comes to Addition Financial Arena on Jan. 12 before the Knights make the return trip on Feb. 5, while preseason favorite Houston visits on Jan. 29. UCF will then visit the Cougars on Feb. 17. Games against perennial contender Wichita State on Jan. 26 (away) and Feb. 8 (home) also promise to be big, and of course there’s also the War On I-4 rivalry to look forward to. The Knights and Bulls first meet in Tampa on Jan. 15 before squaring off in Orlando on Feb. 3.
Overall, UCF will play 16 of its 29 games at Addition Financial Arena, which will finally be open to full-capacity crowds again after only allowing for COVID-reduced crowds last season.
It’s time to build momentum for the future of UCF men’s basketball
UCF’s move to the Big 12 is massive for a lot of reasons, and it’s possible that no program will be impacted more than men’s basketball. The Big 12 is arguably the best men’s basketball conference in the country, and UCF will have its work cut out when the jump is made in a couple of years.
On the horizon, there’s national powerhouse Kansas and reigning national champion Baylor, as well as consistent contenders in Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and West Virginia. Not to mention, BYU, Houston and Cincinnati are joining the league with the Knights and it’s not a stretch to say that, of the four new programs, UCF’s has the most work to do in the men’s basketball department. So, why shouldn’t that work start now?
Crashing the NCAA Tournament in March isn’t out of the realm of possibility for the Knights. Given the stability UCF will enjoy with its lineup, there’s no reason that an at-large berth should be out of the question. The Black and Gold were picked to finish fifth in the AAC Preseason Media Poll, but there are other outlets higher on this team’s chances to do some damage in 2021-22. In ESPN’s AAC Men’s Basketball Preview, the consensus was that UCF would finish third in the conference, while college basketball insider/guru Jon Rothstein has repeatedly tabbed the Knights as a sleeper in the AAC.
A strong season would position Johnny Dawkins and his team well for the future. Nothing helps recruiting more than winning, so if UCF can make some noise in non-conference play, make a run in the AAC Tournament and/or go dancing in March for the first time since 2019, the future will be looking exceptionally bright for this program.