For UCF power forward Keith Clanton, simply being good is no longer good enough. Simply being one of UCF’s best all-around players and a standout who averages 14 points and seven rebounds will no longer cut it.
That’s the viewpoint of both UCF head coach Donnie Jones and Clanton himself. Both know that if Clanton is going to truly maximize his tremendous talent, more has to be demanded of him. His future is relying on it, as well as UCF’s this basketball season.
“Keith has to play with that kind of swagger every night, like he’s the best player on the court,” Jones said after a dazzling 28-point, 15-rebound, five-assist performance from Clanton in UCF’s exhibition win against West Virginia Tech Saturday.
Clanton, an Orlando native who fulfilled a dream of playing for the Knights, was certainly good in his first two seasons at UCF, making the Conference USA All-Freshman team in 2010 and All-C-USA third team last season. He boosted his scoring average from 9.7 points per game to 14.2 points last season.
But for UCF to reach its goals this season, Clanton is needed to be more great than good. UCF needs him to be in attack mode instead of coasting, dominating more than simply thriving and leading more than just fitting in. It’s somewhat of a character break for the quiet, unassuming Clanton, but one that he knows he has to make going into his junior season. Averaging 20-22 points and 10 rebounds a night is certainly within reach, even if he’s not focused on individual goals right now.
“I don’t think about numbers. I just think that when I’m on the floor I need to set a tone for our team and be aggressive,” said Clanton, a 6-foot-9, 245-pounder. “I know that I have to play with more energy and be that leader for us. That’s on me and I’m ready for the challenge.”
As the Knights prepare for the regular-season opener against Saint Thomas on Saturday at 5 p.m., Clanton has done everything in his power to improve his game and his body for this season. Working tirelessly with UCF’s strength coaches, Clanton shaved his body-fat index to 8.2 percent.
And on the court, he’s worked to better his all-around skills. He was the best player on a college all-star team that travelled to China last spring and in the summer he averaged 20.7 points and 10 rebounds a game for UCF during their three-game jaunt to Canada. The experiences taught Clanton something about playing with the pressure to be great every night.
Clanton’s hoping that the aggressiveness he’s learned to play with will carry over to this season. UCF is loaded with great depth this season and fellow junior Marcus Jordan is an equally important piece on the team, but for the Knights to truly make a big jump this season Clanton is going to be needed to star on a nightly basis.
“We talk about that with him. You can see the condition he’s in and it’s because he’s one of our hardest workers,” Jones said of Clanton. “It used to be that the old Keith Clanton would get winded and take plays off on the defensive end. But now he’s playing both ends at a pretty high level.”
A player who beat foes in the past mostly with his smooth moves and basketball smarts, Clanton feels his improved conditioning will make him a dramatically different threat this season. He no longer wants to be a player who thrives on below-the-rim plays. His spectacular alley-oop dunk against West Virginia Tech was one encouraging sign that Clanton is ready to take his game to, well, another level.
“I got better playing overseas and experiencing playing with different types of players and in different positions. And improving my athletic ability has helped me get more agile,” Clanton said. “Coach has been on me about dunking the ball a lot more this year, so I feel like I’ll get a lot more dunks because I’m way more athletic. I want to be more of an athlete on the court and do some things that maybe I didn’t do in the past.”
One of the things that Clanton wants to do most is lead the Knights to the NCAA Tournament. UCF showed promise of doing that last season after starting the season 14-0 with big wins against Florida, Miami, South Florida and UMass. The Knights ultimately tailed off in C-USA play, but Clanton feels that this season UCF has the depth and talent to make a strong run to the postseason.
With the addition of transfers like Tristan Spurlock, and freshmen Rod Days, Kasey Wilson and Wayne Martin and his improved development, UCF will be better positioned to make a sustained run this season. Plus, UCF can now play the attacking, trapping defense that Jones prefers. And it’s an open-court style that should benefit Clanton – that is, as long as he’s carrying an air of being the best player on the floor on a nightly basis.
“Getting to the NCAAs, that’s a great goal for us. And we have a chance to win a (conference) championship here. Every team says that, but I really feel like this is our year,” he said. “I feel like we’re so much further along than we were at this point last season. The 10 practices that we had in the summer, the time that we had (in Canada) bonding as a team and the chemistry is really strong for us right now. It’s just a matter now if going out and doing it.”