For first-year UCF coach Donnie Jones, there’s a combination of excitement over the beginning of a new era but also trepidation about the unknown. He likes the promise and potential of this basketball team, but also knows there are many areas that need improvement for the Knights to make some noise this season.
The Jones’ era at UCF tips off tonight at UCF Arena when the Knights host West Florida at 7 p.m. He took over the program last March and since has gone to work trying to chance UCF’s style of play to one that pushes the pace, reads and reacts on the fly and smothers opponents all over the floor. Needless to say, it’s been a challenge fitting existing players to a new style, but Jones said he’s been pleased with the attitude and work ethic of this team. Now, he’s ready to get started, knowing full well the team that takes the floor tonight will likely look dramatically different weeks from now.
“For me, it’s anticipation more than butterflies. You never want to lose the butterflies. That’s a good thing because you are excited,” Jones said. “I’m excited to watch this team grow. We’re nowhere near where we need to be at this time, but I think with this group they’ve worked hard and we have to translate what we’ve done here in the gym to the games. That’s a transfer that we haven’t made yet.”
UCF returns eight players from a team that was among the youngest in the nation last season, but Jones has also added seven new faces to the mix in an attempt to add more size and athleticism. Keith Clanton and Marcus Jordan, All-Freshman picks last season, are back as starters, as are juniors A.J. Rompza and Isaac Sosa. A.J. Tyler and Taylor Young are proven seniors who will provide leadership and depth off the bench. And big men Tom Herzog and Dwight McCombs will split time at center, giving the Knights some much-needed bulk on the block.
That group has had to get used to a system used by Jones where players are given the freedom to make plays off certain reads. Pushing the pace is demanded, as is intense defense. And while it’s a system that is preferable to most players, it is one that requires great conditioning and tremendous amounts of discipline.
“You have to love the freedom, but you have to earn it from coach for him to let you keep playing,” said Rompza, a starter each of the past two years who ranked ninth in the nation in steals last season. “We’ve been doing a lot of the up and down stuff and working on our defense and there’s a lot that we still have to work on as a team. But the last couple of practices have been great for us and I feel we’ve improved a lot of the different aspects of the game.”
Jones is looking for big improvements this season from Clanton, the 6-foot-8, 245-pound power forward who should thrive in the open-court approach. He averaged 9.7 points and 6.8 rebounds last season as a freshman even though he was often pressed into duty as an undersized center. Jones plans to put the ball in Clanton’s hands more this season to allow him to make plays, but that is still a work in progress.
“Keith is coming along, but he’s turned the ball over too much. He’s gotten the opportunity to handle the ball a little more, but he’s got to learn to make good decisions with it,” Jones said. “He will in time and he’s a smart player. He’s a good player and we need him to be good. He has to make that next step and play like he’s the best player on the court.”
UCF’s transition from a team that was heavily structured under Kirk Speraw, the all-time winningest coach in school history, to a system now built around a frenetic pace has been challenging at times. Jones has said that all players want to play up-tempo basketball, but not all of them realize the work needed to go into playing that style.
Finding reliable scorers will still be an issue at times, he said, and there are some concerns about the Knights defensive limitations against some of the more athletic teams in the league. But Jones is hoping that in time his players will keep adapting to the new style and in time they will grow into a cohesive unit.
“I hope in time people will recognize our style of play. Right now, we have some different guys who haven’t been recruited to this style of play. It takes time,” Jones said. “We were ninth in the league last year in scoring with many of these same guys, so we’re learning, thinking and we don’t know what a bad shot is and what a good shot is. We’re learning to play together faster and not thinking so much. Once we can play with freedom and share the ball, make the extra pass, speed things up and get steals, you’ll notice that’s the kind of style that we want to play.”
Tyler, a senior power forward who started every game last season, admitted that there has been an adjustment period for a Knights team that didn’t run with the ball too often last season. His brother, Garrett, was recruited to the University of Florida by Jones, then a Gators assistant, so Tyler knew about his new coach’s demanding style of play before preseason drills ever began. Tyler, who averaged 10.3 points and 5.0 rebounds last season, feels the Knights will be a dramatically better team late in the season than they are now as they make the adjustments to the up-tempo style.
“I feel pretty comfortable in the system now and we’ve all adjusted pretty well to it,” Tyler said. “We’re working on it every day and we continue to get better. It’s a good system and we feel like it’s one that we can succeed with.”
Jones, who hauled in three players from his first full recruiting class on Wednesday with three early signing period commitments, said he’s had to straddle the line of implementing his system and installing a style that fits UCF’s current talent. In time, more athletic recruits will allow the Knights to play at the breakneck pace that he wants. But he feels that this team with the right growth can be highly successful.
“It just takes time. We’re trying to work with the guys that we have here to get them better and to adapt to what we do,” he said. “Our goal is to win and as a coach we’ll have to adjust sometimes to them and do whatever can we can to win.
“But we are teaching what we do, pushing it and selling it and trying to form an identity because this team does not have an identity yet,” Jones continued. “We know who we want to be and that’s who we have to become over time. We have good attitudes and good basketball people, but we’re not very athletic. We have to win with the team concept because we don’t have a lot of superstars. They have to play together.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at [email protected]