Coming off a week of firsts, UCF Basketball is just trying to keep momentum flowing heading into another challenging set of Conference USA games. The Knights beat Memphis on Wednesday and UAB on the road, two opponents they were a combined 0-17 against in program history.
Saturday’s 48-41 win in Birmingham was especially hard fought. It was not the prettiest game this season, but head coach Donnie Jones knows it’s an experience that his team will grow from.
“I like that we showed toughness down the stretch,” said Jones. “We went on a 10-0 run to finish the game. I thought our defense won. We played against a very tough, athletic team on the road, in their building, to hold them to 41 points is what I did like.”
Nine turnovers UCF had Saturday after gaining an early first half lead is one thing Jones was not as pleased with leading up to Wednesday’s second game in a row on the road at Tulsa. All factors aside, no one will be as important to success against the Golden Hurricane then Keith Clanton.
Clanton led the Knights in scoring in both wins last week on the way to CUSA Player of the Week honors. On Wednesday, he will contend with a Tulsa front line that features, 6’11” Kodi Maduka, 6’11” Steven Idlet, and 6’9” D.J. Magley.
The man who also passed Ken Leeks on Saturday to be UCF’s all-time leading shot blocker realizes the assignment he’ll draw down low is a daunting one.
“I know they are going to play real hard,” said Clanton. “We know they have a couple big guys that me and Josh (Crittle) have watched film on already. We have to match their intensity on their home court so we just have to feed off each other.”
Crittle will join the effort in the post and he continues to be an important piece that has improved alongside Clanton. The junior had a quick six points against UAB, but only played 13 minutes all game after being hit in the eye.
Confidence has built as the season goes on for Crittle. His hot start against the Blazers might directly trace back to a six-point, seven-rebound performance against Memphis. Clanton says they have told Crittle to be more aggressive in practice and it has carried over to games.
“He still has huge room for improvement,” said Jones. “He sat out a year and a half. He is now getting some minutes and getting the rust off from sitting out. He can be the recipient of a lot of focus on AJ (Rompza), Marcus (Jordan), and Keith. He is going to have opportunities to give us some extra things which we need for our team to have a chance to win every night.”
To be in a position for victory Wednesday, the Knights will need a collective effort. Size might be a huge area of concern when playing this 11-9 Tulsa squad, but one must also contend with guard Jordan Clarkson.
Clarkson is averaging over 15 points a game as a sophomore while leading the Golden Hurricane in assists. A 5-1 record might put UCF atop the league standings, but Tulsa has been just as hot in conference play.
“They’ve won four in a row,” said Jones. “I think they tied for second last year (in CUSA), everyone forgets that. They have a lot of those guys back from last year’s team. They’re probably playing their best basketball right now.”
UCF might be receiving three votes in this week’s top 25. With a 15-4 record, they have also found their way into the top 60 RPI nationally and might be playing themselves into an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
However, the Knights have little time to dwell on accomplishments knowing how tough an out each team is in CUSA.
“I feel like there is no real dominant team so you have to come to play every time,” said Clanton. “You can lose to the bottom of the league or the top. Every team feels evenly matched, so you just have to come out and play every game.”