Now, on the verge of UCF hosting its first NCAA tournament game ever on Thursday, Cunningham feels like he was in on secret that others were about to find out this season.
“When I had my meeting with Mr. Tribble last December, we were coming off a bad year, but I really thought this would be the year that we were going to turn the corner,” said Cunningham, who is in his fourth season at UCF. “My first (recruiting class), they’re now all juniors and coming into their own. They know the system and they’re teaching it to the younger players. Slowly but surely, they’re building this to where we want it to be – a Top 25 team.”
UCF’s season-long transformation comes full circle on Thursday at 5 p.m. when the Knights (11-4-3) hosts in-state rival USF (9-5-4). The two teams didn’t play this season, but the Bulls did beat UCF, 2-1, last season. Cunningham is confident that the Knights will be ready after playing a league schedule that included four Conference USA squads that qualified for the NCAA tournament.
“In Conference USA, you play a lot of good teams. I think we finished with six teams in the top 60 in the RPI and four teams in the top 30,” Cunningham said. “So I think we’re ready for the challenges that await us. Playing those teams and winning some of those games and getting some results helped us big time.”
UCF went into the Conference USA Tournament last week as the second seed, but lost, 2-1, to Tulsa. The Knights then had to await their fate in the NCAA Tournament, hoping for an at-large bid. And on the nationally televised Selection Show, the Knights were one of the final four teams announced, heightening the tension for the team.
The Knights not only got in, but they also earned a home game date against the rival Bulls. And if they win, they will play on the road against the No. 10 University of Michigan on Sunday at 2 p.m.
“It says a lot about the season that we had and also the respect for Conference USA. We placed four teams in the NCAA Tournament and all four teams will be playing at home in the first or second round, which is great,” Cunningham said. “It’s the first time we’ve hosted and the first time we’ve received an at-large bid. So give all of the credit to the players and the assistant coaches for pushing everything all together this year. We’ve talked about one game at a time and it’s all paying off right now.”
UCF got to this point because of the dynamic playmaking of forward Nik Robson (nine goals, nine assists and 27 points) and the passing of Spencer Scott (eight assists) and a stingy defense that allowed just three goals at home all season. For the season, the Knights outscored foes 37-16 and were the lone team in the regular season to beat fifth-seeded SMU.
The combination of senior leadership provided by Yaron Bacher, Camilo Rendon and Josh Andone combined with the youth of Robson (sophomore), Scott (junior), Kevn George (junior), Cameron Cooksey (junior) and Warren Creavalle (junior) have given the Knights the right mix to author their most special season ever.
“We always believed in the players and what we were capable of. And we knew the caliber of the kids that we were bringing in to the team for this year,” Cunningham said. “We really felt like we were about to turn a corner and be writing some history, which we are doing this year.”