by Nick Wilke | @Njwilke
The UCF basketball team is coming off an upset win over No. 4 UConn and a second-place finish in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
UCF overcame a 17-point second-half deficit to defeat the defending national champs 68-63 in the semifinals of the tournament. The Knights had a rough night against the Harvard defense in the finals, shooting just 20-for-60 from the field. Harvard held off the Knights to win 59-49, but UCF’s win over UConn was arguably the biggest in the program’s history.
The team is garnering national attention not just because it features both of Michael Jordan’s sons, Marcus and Jeff, but also because this team is proving to be one of the top basketball programs in Florida.
Last season, Marcus Jordan led the Knights to a 14-0 start, by far the best start in school history, with upsets over Miami (FL) and No.18 Florida. Marcus even made it on ESPN’s top plays a couple of times last season with a facial against Stetson and a crafty lay-up against Florida.
By the end of 2010, UCF was ranked as high as No. 19 in the AP Poll. The success was short-lived for the Knights, though. When they got into Conference USA play, they lost eight straight games, and finished the season 21-12 overall.
Head Coach Donnie Jones and returning players have learned from their late struggles last season and won’t let history repeat itself.
“There were a lot of lessons to learn through that loss, and there were a lot of reasons for that,” Jones said. “Hopefully, the guys that have been a part of that understand that, but I’ve moved past it. I don’t live in the past; I live in today, and I think these guys have grown from that.”
“We didn’t finish the way we wanted to, but we’ve moved on,” said senior point guard AJ Rompza. “We started out great, then had rough points. As a leader, I’m gonna let that go and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Through six games this season the Knights are 4-2, but the real test will come when Conference USA play starts. UCF will look to improve from their 5-11 C-USA record from last season.
Marcus Jordan was the team’s leading scorer and distributor last season, averaging 15 points per game and 3.3 assists. So far this season, he is averaging 15.8 ppg and 3.6 apg. He is the team’s second leading scorer behind junior forward Keith Clanton, who averages 18 ppg and 9 rpg.
The team has added a couple of new transfers, like Tristan Spurlock from Virginia and Josh Crittle from Oregon, to help share the scoring load.
Jones just doesn’t want Jordan to feel like he has to do everything for his team to win.
“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.”
“I think what’s different about that now is that we’ve added a few more people that can contribute,” Marcus said. “I don’t have to go out thinking I have to score 25 points for us to win. I can go out and get six or seven assists and we’ll still get the W.”
Providing some help for Marcus in the backcourt is his older brother Jeff, who has been getting a lot of minutes at the point guard spot because Rompza, the team’s projected starter, has been suspended by the NCAA until December 30.
Jones has been impressed with Jeff’s ability to learn the offense and play efficiently at the point guard position.
“Jeff Jordan played three years in the Big 10,” said Jones. “He averaged 13 minutes a game with a very good program in Illinois, and I think he brings in some experience, some toughness, and gives us some good minutes at that point guard spot.”
The Jordan brothers are just excited and thankful to play on the same team one last time. The two previously starred together in high school at Loyola Academy in Illinois when Marcus was a sophomore and Jeff was a senior.
“It’s definitely special,” said Jeff about playing with Marcus. “It’s one of the things I thought about before I transferred here. It was a big factor in my decision. I’m just going to try to soak it all up and enjoy it as much as I can and just have fun with it.”
“It’s a sad thing that this is the last year we’re going to play together,” Marcus said. “But we just want to get the best out of it.”
Jeff has also enjoyed watching Marcus develop over the years.
“Coming in last year just seeing him be lot more comfortable,” said Jeff. “Just enjoying himself having fun, and he’s definitely evolved into more of a leader and just a great overall basketball player. It’s been great just sitting here and being able to watch his progression.”
UCF has kind of a weak non-conference schedule this season, with the exception to Florida State and UConn, but the next test for the Knights will be against Old Dominion on December 17 in Orlando. C-USA play starts for the Knights on January 4 versus Tulane.
The Knights have already proven that they can hang with top teams, but they must play consistently throughout the season if they want to reach their goal of a C-USA championship and a NCAA tournament berth.