Jan. 20, 2012
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - No matter the heights that the UCF men's basketball team climbs this season - and there's certainly been some stratospheric stuff so far with several landmark victories - the Knights will always have the memories of last season to keep them grounded.
Having already beaten defending national champion UConn and 2011 NCAA Tournament team Old Dominion, UCF felled another giant on Wednesday night by defeating perennial Conference USA power Memphis. Keith Clanton's clutch three-point play with four seconds remaining lifted UCF to a 68-67 victory and prompted a celebration where jubilant fans stormed the court at the UCF Arena.
But a much more even-keeled and mature UCF squad knows what is as important now to beating Memphis is how the team responds to success. Heading into Saturday's 2 p.m. game at UAB, UCF (14-4 overall and 4-1 in C-USA play) knows a loss to the Blazers (6-11 and 1-3) will offset any good created by the school's first-ever defeat of Memphis.
``We're just trying to attack it a game at a time. And when we look back upon it - that's something we try to not do - but we've beaten some good teams this season,'' said UCF guard Marcus Jordan, referring to his Knights not looking too far ahead this season. ``We've just got to keep trying to win every game that we play and a take it a game at a time. We'll see where we end up at the end of the year.''
The hope is that the Knights end up in the postseason, which has been head coach Donnie Jones' stated goal all season. But the head coach is hoping that his team will learn from what has happened in the past and use it as a guide for how to approach this season.
UCF started last season 14-0 after beating the likes of Florida, Miami, South Florida and Princeton. But looking back on it, the Knights feel they grew too comfortable as a team and an eight-game skid ultimately followed. UCF was able to salvage last season with a strong finish, but the midseason lull knocked it out of contention for an NCAA Tournament bid.
The Knights are determined not to let the same thing happen this season, and they have proven to be better at handling success. After an early-season loss to Florida State, UCF bounced back by winning three-straight games, including the defeat of UConn, which had the nation's longest winning streak at the time. UCF did lose to Harvard after whipping UConn, but proceeded to win its next four games. And the Knights didn't allow a tough one-point loss at Marshall last week affect them in Wednesday's historic defeat of Memphis.
Jones senses something is dramatically different about this UCF team and how it handles both success and failures. This team, Jones said, has spent more time looking to what's ahead instead of looking back at past accomplishments.
``We want to get to the NCAA Tournament. You have to take `em one at a time and there's still a lot of basketball to be played,'' Jones said. ``The biggest lesson for us is obviously what we went through last year. That's helped this team to improve because we embraced that adversity the right way. A lot of great programs are built on how they respond to adversity. This team is looking to do that and build it the right way.''
UCF enters Saturday's game all alone in second place in the C-USA standings, trailing only Marshall (13-5 and 4-0) by a game. The Knights are one game ahead of Southern Miss (16-3 and 3-1) and Memphis (12-6 and 3-1). If UCF and Marshall continue to win it would set up a titanic rematch between the two rival schools in Orlando on Feb. 9.
Not that UCF is looking past UAB, though. History has taught them not to do that.
Jones is well aware that UCF's chances of getting into the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season will depend on how the Knights fare in C-USA play and the postseason conference tournament.
``All of the other ones are good wins and good for your program, but this is conference. You have to win in your conference to get to the NCAA Tournament,'' Jones said. ``To me, (the Memphis win) is the best win for our program because Memphis is the team at the top of our league. We're one game out of first place and we can control our destiny with what we do.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.