Revelations sometimes come at the oddest of times and strangest of places and for UCF men’s basketball coach Donnie Jones and standout guard Marcus Jordan, their revealing moment came this summer in Canada.
A night after Jordan opened an August three-game exhibition tour by torching the opposition for 24 points and five 3-pointers, Jones was eager to see how his junior guard would respond to a gimmick defense by the defending Canadian national champions. Carleton, a team that had won seven of the past nine Canadian national championships, had a player tailing Jordan all over the court and the rest of the defense positioned in a zone to specifically cut off his drives to the hoop.
Would Jordan force the issue and take unwise shots against a trapping defense? Or would he beat the defense with his ability to pass the ball and make others on the UCF squad better? The answer came in the form of four other Knights scoring in double figures – with many of those baskets coming off picture-perfect feeds from Jordan.
“They chased Marcus around with a box-and-one and instead of forcing things he had several assists and did what he had to do to help our team,” Jones marveled. “This season, I think we can be a better team as we play as a team instead of just depending on how Marcus and Keith (Clanton) go.”
A season after leading UCF on a wild ride – the Knights won their first 14 games, endured an eight-game losing streak and then rallied to get into the postseason – Jordan enters this season knowing he can help more. Jordan saw his scoring average jump from 8.0 points per game as a freshman to 15.2 points per game as a sophomore, but he heads into this season looking to spread the wealth among a UCF team that is deeper and more potent.
“Everybody got in the gym and worked on their offensive game and now they can score points as well as playing defense better,” said Jordan, who was picked to the All-Conference USA Preseason Second Team. “It takes some of the weight off my shoulders a little bit and I don’t have to go out and try to score 20 or 30 points every night. Now, I can kind of sit back some and try to get eight assists a game while Keith scores and Isaiah (Sykes) scores and A.J. (Rompza) and (older brother) Jeff (Jordan) scores. That’s a great facet that we’ve added to our team and it can make us much more versatile.”
Two weeks into preseason drills, UCF opens exhibition play at home on Nov. 5 against West Virginia Tech. The Knights host St. Thomas in the regular-season opener on Nov. 12 and get an early test at Florida State on Nov. 14.
Much of UCF’s success last season was on the shoulders of Jordan, who was both the Knights’ top scorer (15.2 ppg.) and playmaker (3.3 apg.). The belief now is that with more development by Clanton (14.2 ppg. last season) and the addition of transfers Tristan Spurlock, Josh Crittle and Jeff Jordan that Marcus Jordan won’t have to be leaned on so heavily this season. Jones wants him to realize that the marks of a truly great player is being able to have an impact on a game without scoring and also making others around him better.
“He realizes that he still has to score for us, but the biggest thing now is that we have other guys who can do more than last year and give us other things,” Jones said. “Now, Marcus can focus on making others around him better. He doesn’t necessarily have to get 20 a night for us to win.”
Jordan scored 20 or more points eight times last season. And he was at his best in UCF’s biggest games, scoring 18 points in the upset of Florida, 23 points and MVP honors against Miami in the Orange Bowl Classic, 26 against Princeton and another 26 in an early-season defeat of Marshall.
Those exploits helped UCF get nationally ranked for the first time in school history. A dry spell followed, brought on in part by ankle and hip injuries to Jordan. But the Knights rallied down the stretch and played well enough to reach the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational tournament.
Looking back on it now, Jordan said the team learned plenty from last season’s wild ride and made it a point in the offseason to work on being a more consistent group. Part of that belief is because the Knights are more familiar with the attacking, up-tempo style preferred by Jones, now in his second season at UCF.
“Looking back on it, it was a great year because it was a 20-plus win year. We had our peaks and valleys. We’ve put it behind us, but we’ve also remembered that feeling when we lost eight in a row,” Jordan said. “This offseason we got into the gym and attacked everything. We’re working to be more consistent.
“We’re 10 times further along now than we were this time last year,” Jordan continued. “When coach Jones first got here everybody was kind of nervous and trying to impress the new coach. But now we’re familiar with coach and comfortable in his system. We’re strides ahead of where we were at this time last season.”
Jordan said he’s also strides ahead of where he was last season in terms of shooting the ball. Jordan repeatedly burned defenses last season by getting to the rim or getting to the line where he made a school record 165 free throws. But ultimately schools in C-USA backed off and dared him to either shoot from afar or pass to others. He enters this season more focused on making plays for others and knocking down long-range shots when available.
“This summer I wanted to get into the gym and get up more jump shots,” Jordan said. “I’ve been working on one-dribble pull-ups and two-dribble pull-ups and also becoming more consistent shooting the 3-ball. That’s what I’ve worked hard to improve this offseason.”
Jordan feels that hard work will help him take the Knights to the NCAA Tournament this season. Several college basketball websites are projecting UCF as a NCAA Tournament team this season and Jordan sees no reason why it can’t do that as well as make a run at a C-USA crown.
“That’s always the goal, getting to the NCAAs and I think we can do it,” Jordan said. “I think we’ll be right there fighting for that NCAA berth as well as putting ourselves in position to win a conference championship here this season.”