How I Learned to Love UCF Basketball
After I graduated high school, I went to New York. This had always been a dream vacation of mine. I grew up a Yankees fan and had never been to Yankee Stadium. That was the point of the trip, to go to watch a Yankees game in Yankee Stadium. Oh and watch Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. But on my adventure in New York, I took a detour to the arena known as Sports Mecca. That’s right, I went and visited Madison Square Garden. Even the name conjures a sense of majesty and reverence. Being a 90s baby, I still remember when the Garden had its lore. So to step into that building was majestic. Here was where Ewing played, where the Rangers finally won the Stanley Cup. It was sports heaven and where every sports fan has to go before they die. Just stepping into that building brings goosebumps.
And now on Tuesday, UCF gets to play in that building. I want you to take a moment and let that sink in. BJ Taylor, AJ Davis, Matt Williams, etc are going to be on the same floor that Allen Houston and Patrick Ewing played on. You know I thought the dream of UCF playing in the Garden died the day the old Big East did. Yet here UCF is, headed to play in Madison Square Garden in a post season tournament. Of course we all wish it was the NCAA tournament and not the NIT. But for a program that has 0 basketball history and had not had a winning season in 3 years, beggars can not be choosers. No this is beyond the pail for UCF fans.
UCF fans are criticized for putting so much stock into the NIt. But you have to understand, we had to endure Donnie Jones for 6 years. To say that Jones was an incompetent coach would be an understatement. You see Jones squandered talent at UCF. Hell he couldn’t even take the Marcus Jordan, Keith Clanton team to the NCAA Tournament. Oh and there was the whole sanctions situation. Then when UCF moved from Conference USA to the American, Jones was exposed even more. His team never finished better than 7th in the AAC. In fact Jones never won more than 13 games when the Knights faced a tougher conference. “But he can recruit”, the Jones defenders have said/ will say. Of course they will fail to mention that one of the only reasons why Jones could recruit was because he was paying for said recruits. However, Jones’ two best recruits(BJ Taylor and Matt Williams) grew up in Orlando. So really how much credit does he really deserve other than being the coach at the hometown university. Also Jones had no plan on how to run a offense or defense. In his 3 years in the AAC, Jones offense never finished better than 215th in KenPom. That is embarrassing on so many levels. Donnie Jones nearly destroyed the UCF program. Nearly ruined all hope of ever having a competent basketball program. He single handily put the basketball program on intensive care. He should not be celebrated, rather mocked for how truly awful he was. Johnny Dawkins has already accomplished more with 7 scholarship players than Jones did his entire tenure. The fact that this idiot and I truly mean IDIOT is still working in basketball is everything that is wrong with the sport.
That is why this run is so special. Because of the suffering that the UCF basketball fan has had to endure. For years the biggest win I would ever witness was the time that UCF finally beat Memphis. But Johnny Dawkins has done the impossible. He has stayed Giants at UCF. And yes, I admit I was wrong about the Dawkins hiring. Consider this:Dawkins has beat a 13 ranked Cincinnati team, a Colorado team that beat Oregon, a Illinois State team that many thought should have been in the NCAA Tournament, and a Illinois team that was perpetually on the bubble. He has taken UCF further than anyone has in a major basketball tournament. But more important he has made UCF fans believe. Former Memphis coach John Calipari famously said about UCF basketball that the program was “a sleeping giant.” A moniker that has plagued UCF athletics for years. Well under Dawkins, it is no longer sleeping. UCF basketball is so close to winning a postseason championship for the first time in history. And this isn’t the CBI or CIT, this is the NIT which still has some respect and recognition. UCF is so close and that is all thanks to Dawkins.
They say that the Garden brings out historic performances from superstars. Jordan and Lebron have excelled there. Hell Knicks fans were even chanting Kobe’s name at the Garden. There’s Reggie Miller’s miraculous performance in winning time. But MSG is also known for having unknown players have a few nights of glory(Jeremy Lin). But what MSG is truly known for and what makes it such a magical place is it is prone to making college players into gods for their performances at MSG. Gerry McNamara and Kemba Walker jump immediately to mind. Players that put on a show and are still talked about today. And UCF has a player capable of doing just that writing his name in Madison Square Garden lore. And no it’s not Tacko Fall.
BJ Taylor has been utterly remarkable for the Knights. Since late January, BJ has put UCF on his back. Since January 17, BJ Taylor has scored in double figures in 17 straight games. In 8 of those games BJ has scored 20+ points. UCF has made it so far this year because of BJ’s skill and will. When UCF needed a player to carry them against the upset victory of Cincinnati, there was BJ to score 27. But it has really been the month of March especially during the NIT Tournament where BJ has become Mr. March. BJ has averaged 21 points per game, but his greatness in this tournament extends beyond just the box score. When Colorado was making a comeback on UCF, BJ scored all of UCF’s points in the last 6 minutes of that game to ice it. When UCF was down 18 to Illinois State on the road, it was BJ that brought UCF back. They say that how a player is during “winning time” makes him a superstar. Well BJ Taylor is shooting 60 % from 3 point land with under 2 minutes remaining in the month of March. Against Illinois State. the Knights trailed by 1 with 3.3 seconds remaining. Who did they get the ball to? None other than BJ, who got fouled and like a stone cold killer easily made 2 free throws in front of the Illinois State student section to win the game. If that’s not winning time, I don’t know what is. Sure the media will dawn over Tacko Fall and his 7'6 frame. Jamie Dixon will say that Tacko is the biggest problem for TCU. But the player keeping him up at night will be BJ Taylor. So with the lights on him and playing on the biggest stage of his career, do not be surprised to see BJ Taylor have his coming out party. To join those college players that have etched their names in the history books at MSG.
7 Scholarship players. That is what Johnny Dawkins has had to work with. Transfers in and out of the program. Unexpected injuries, unforeseen off the court issues had decimated any hope at the start of the year. Then there were those players that stayed: Matt Williams, AJ Davis, Chad Brown. They deserve to share in this moment Just getting past 13 wins/a winning record was all UCF required. Anyone with a sense of college basketball knowledge had figured that UCF was going to be painfully bad this year. Yet here the Knights sit with a chance to win a NIT championship. Oh and according to KenPom is the 64th best team in the nation. So yes my friends, it appears that UCF basketball is good. So you have to pardon UCF fans for being excited to finally hoist some sort of trophy, given the lack of history and the expectations headed into the year. And for a group of fans that had to endure watching a program like FGCU make a miraculous March run a few years ago, this feels so good. For so long we wanted to feel what it was like to be some sort of Cinderlla. Now we know that feeling and oh boy does it taste so good.
Being a fan of a none major conference team sucks sometimes. You don’t get the press that a Power 5 conference team gets. Your games aren’t often on the main ESPN channel, rather you are relegated to searching for ESPNU/News/CBS Sports. It really sucks. But for a brief time, UCF fans get to taste what it’s like, to be a power team in the Mecca of Basketball. Sure it’s for the NIT championship, but at this point, it really doesn’t matter. UCF is going to play at the fucking Garden. Just typing those words makes me puff out my chest with alma mater pride. When Danny White was introduced as UCF Athletic Director, he said he wanted UCF to play for championships. Well UCF is 2 games away from winning one. 2 games from cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden. Simply incredible.