He found the perfect fit. So did the school.
After a sluggish and disappointing freshman season that served as a catalyst, Jordan has led the sudden and unexpected surge of UCF, which has won its first 14 games, landing its first-ever Top 20 national ranking.
The Heir, at least for now, is coming into his own.
The Knights, who play in Conference USA, will go into Saturday night’s game at Houston as one of just seven unbeaten NCAA Division I basketball teams, but the only one charting new territory.
The other six teams already have combined to win 11 national titles. UCF — with Jordan taking center stage — is just getting started, orchestrating a stunning turnaround under first-year coach Donnie Jones.
“This has been a lot of fun for all of us,” Jordan said before the team left Friday for Houston. “I love what we’re building here. This is been really good for everyone.”
Jordan struggled last year after missing most all of the preseason conditioning with a knee injury, but he returned this season 15 pounds lighter and considerably more polished, taking the ball and the leadership in the program’s new beginning.
A few offseason lessons from his father didn’t hurt. He doesn’t have Michael Jordan’s unbelievable athleticism — not even close, but nobody does — but he has shown some marked improvement, and much of his father’s mentality.
UCF coach Donnie Jones “People ask me a lot what qualities he has that compare to his father’s,” Jones said after a recent practice. “Without question, his focus, drive, competitive spirit, his basketball IQ. He’s got all that. He understands how to win. He gets that. Those things are hard to teach. If you have those, and the work ethic he has, you’re going to get better.”
Jordan, a 6-3, 205-pound guard, opened the season by scoring 28 points against West Florida. In the last two games, he had 28 points against Princeton and 26 against Marshall in the conference opener.
He is averaging 16.7 points — double from his freshman year — in just 26.8 minutes, while shooting 51 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range. He willed the Knights to that come-from-behind victory over Marshall by scoring 22 of his 26 points after intermission. Eight of his nine field goals came on hard drives to the basket. And he went to the free-throw line 12 times, taking charge of the offense.
The team has made the transition from a deliberate, motion offense to the uptempo, force-the-pace attack that Jones preaches. It’s a style that has fit the leaner, fitter Jordan well, putting the ball in his hands to create for himself and for others. Although he rarely played at point guard in the past, either in high school or his first year at UCF, he is excelling in that position now.
“I love taking control of the game, running the point, doing whatever we need,” Jordan said. “If I can take my game to another level one day, either overseas or in the NBA, that’s probably where I’d have to play. Right now, I just want to help build this program.”
The 14-0 start is the best since UCF moved into Division I in 1984. It included winning the UCF Holiday Classic, in which Jordan was named Most Valuable Player.
The start also has ignited some newfound and much-needed enthusiasm surrounding the program, which has lagged in the past. The start has included in-state victories over Florida (Southeastern Conference), Miami (Atlantic Coast Conference) and South Florida (Big East Conference). In the previous 25 years, UCF had won only three games combined against teams from major conferences.
“When I took this job, I knew the program was ready to take the next step, but did I think we’d be this good, right off? No, not at all. I’d be lying if I said I thought we’d be 14-0,” said Jones. “The fear of the unknown is the worst fear when you take a new job. I do know this team was starving to win, and we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Jones (shown right) left Marshall after three seasons to become head coach at UCF. He previously worked as an assistant to Billy Donovan at Florida for 11 years, recruiting the players who won two NCAA championships there.
He knows what it takes to win big. He was Donovan’s top assistant, helping him turn an average Florida program into a powerhouse.
“It’s like baking a cake. You know the ingredients it takes but sometimes you don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” Jones said. “We want to be able to compete on a national stage, and we can do that here.”
UCF’s two best players are Jordan and Keith Clanton, a 6-8, 245-pound power forward. Both are sophomores. The rest of this year’s roster is filled mostly with average players who excel together because they fit the system and play defense with a passion.
“The only thing we don’t have here is tradition, a brand, but we’ve got such a good school and a rising program, it’s not hard to sell,” Jones said. “We’re new, and I tell (recruits) that tradition is the past. It has nothing to do with today. A lot of people feel safe because a school won yesterday, but that doesn’t mean you’ll win today.”
Although UCF competes mostly against mid-level Division I schools, there has been considerable talk of a possible move into the Big East Conference, a basketball powerhouse. Either way, Jones still believes that UCF is on the verge of becoming a strong national competitor.
“We want to build a basketball program that competes every year, something that lasts, like Gonzaga, like Xavier. Why can’t we be that? Like Butler,” he said. “Consistency takes time.”
Jones has three Division I transfers who will be eligible to play at UCF next season — including Jordan’s older brother, Jeff, from Illinois. He already has recruited well, getting early signatures from three of the top six high school seniors in Florida. He also has a commitment from Michael Chandler, the highly recruited center from Indiana who dropped his commitment to Louisville to pick UCF.
“This (being unbeaten) is just a taste of what we can have here,” Jones said. “We’re creating something new. Having someone like Marcus Jordan helps. People identify a program with its players. And he’s a good one to have.”
Source: SF Gate, home of the San Francisco Chronicle, Marcus Jordan Leading Central Florida to New Heights. Tim Povtak, provided by Fanhouse, Saturday, January 8, 2011