The last item has been somewhat of a rarity for the Knights through the years what with UCF qualifying for the NCAA Tournament just four times at the Division I level, and not since 2005. But Jones desperately wants to change that and he’s not willing to wait to jump-start the process of expectations for the postseason.
That is why Jones and the Knights jumped at an invite to the College Basketball Invitational on Sunday night. UCF (19-11) will host St. Bonaventure (16-14) Wednesday night at 8 p.m. at UCF Arena.
Jones is not only hoping that the momentum gained by playing in a postseason tournament will carry over to next season, but he’s also expecting postseason berths – particularly to the NCAA Tournament – to become a regular occurrence around the program. After all, six of the teams that participated in the CBI last season went on reach the NCAA Tournament this season.
“There’s got to be a mentality and an expectancy set here every year for the postseason,” Jones said adamantly. “As we grow and get better and understand what it takes to win, we’ll get to that point. This tournament gives us a great opportunity to grow the process.”
Also, the Knights and their fans clearly aren’t ready to let go of a season that has arguably been the most significant in school history. The Knights started the season 14-0, beat state powers Florida, Miami and South Florida and soared into the top 25 rankings for the first time in school history.
A rough stretch followed, but Jones learned a lot about how his team could handle adversity down the stretch by rallying to win five of seven. The Knights beat C-USA runner-up UTEP, knocked Southern Miss out of first place and came within a last-second buzzer beater up upsetting eventual C-USA champion Memphis.
Those moments told Jones that his blossoming program is ready to raise the bar higher and to face new challenges. The CBI includes teams like Oregon (a winner against Stanford, Washington and UCLA), Miami (Ohio) (a winner against Xavier), Rhode Island (a winner versus Boston College), Duquesne (which beat No. 23 Temple), Davidson (a victor against Nebraska) and Austin Peay (which lost in overtime to Memphis).
St. Bonaventure, UCF’s first-round opponent on Wednesday, beat St. John’s 67-66 on Dec. 7. The Bonnies are led by 6-foot-9, 225-pound junior power forward Andrew Nicholson, who averaged 20.8 points and 7.4 rebounds a game this season.
Jones feels his Knights will be up to the task based on the schedule that they faced this season.
“Nine of our 11 losses were against top 100 teams. We’ve played the toughest schedule we’ve ever played here at this school. We’ve won against seven of the top 100 and we’ve played tough competition all year long,” Jones stressed. “We’ve had to play at a high level every night to have a chance and hopefully that will have prepared us to play on Wednesday.”
And the hope is that the Knights will walk into the UCF Arena in front of a packed crowd as it has most of the season. Another reason for wanting to continue the season and seek a postseason berth is to reward a fan base that turned out in record numbers this season. A school-record 114,142 (an average of 6,714 per game) filled the UCF Arena this season. A whopping 10 of the 15 biggest crowds in school history came during the campaign.
The Knights were eliminated in the first round of the C-USA tournament last week in El Paso by East Carolina, the team that then pulled off the shocker of the tourney by upsetting top-seeded UAB. The Knights were back on the practice floor this weekend, eager to bounce back from the loss and not yet let go of a season that potentially still holds so much promise.
“Our guys are excited about the chance to keep playing. If this was football and this was a bowl game for us, everybody would be excited. And we’re having a bowl game of sorts at home,” Jones said. “There are about 200 basketball teams that aren’t a part of anything right now, so this is a great opportunity for our team. Being in the NCAAs is ultimately our goal, but this can really help us and put us in a tournament situation this time next year.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at [email protected]