With player’s ankles taped, black and gold jerseys tucked in, tennis shoes laced and attitudes set, the first tip of the 2016-17 UCF college basketball season is almost here.
This season will begin the Johnny Dawkins era as head coach of UCF on the hardwood.
Since UCF’S loss to Tulane in the first round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament in March, there have been many changes: Coach Dawkins was hired, three seniors graduated, the team lost three more players to other schools via transfer and Dawkins brought in eight new players.
Four of those players will not play due to NCAA transfer rules, but even with a thin rotation, Dawkins is counting on his team to step up and compete at a high level.
“Whenever you’re taking over a new program you may or may not have the depth there and often times you don’t,” Dawkins said. “We like our personnel, we just have a fine line … barring injury I think we have a good solid group of guys that can compete.”
The lineup includes players like redshirt sophomore guard B.J. Taylor, who’s returning from a foot injury that kept him out for his sophomore campaign, and 7-foot-6 sophomore center Tacko Fall who Dawkins plans on relying on heavily as the focal point of the offense.
“Right now offensively, we are going to employ the pick-and-roll, especially with a guy like B.J., coming off screens I think that’s a strength of his,” Dawkins said. “But we also see ourselves as a team that has a presence on the interior which is Tacko and we want to utilize him.”
Fall and Taylor are recognized as essential in the plans for the team this season. Players like sophomore forward Chad Brown are also prepared to step up and become heavy contributors to the team’s overall success.
“I feel like both of us together we are starting to understand what we’re capable of,” Brown said. “We [can] control the paint and dominate and our high-low game is starting to get better — it’s getting a lot better.”
Brown and Fall are the only big men returning from last season’s team. Last year Brown only averaged four minutes per game in his sophomore year. Dawkins will rely more on his production in the Knights’ thin front court.
Brown feels that although some people will view their short rotation as a weakness, he views it as one of the team’s strengths in chemistry.
“I feel like that’s an advantage for us,” Brown said. “With the guys we have, we’re building a lot of good team chemistry.”
Dawkins’ confidence in his team’s ability to compete on both ends stems from the teams’ competition in practices this summer, which included matchups versus those eight newcomers.
“The guys we have sitting out provide a lot of depth for us, you just don’t see them,” Dawkins said. “I have another team of guys who can compete against them that has enough depth, including our walk-ons, that can challenge and make it competitive.”
This summer, Dawkins established an environment of competition that will push the players who will be on the court this season. Incoming transfer, redshirt junior guard Dayon Griffin, says that off-the-court friendships are forged, but there are no friends on the court.
“It’s fun to compete against my brothers,” Griffin said. “But at the end of the day when we are between these lines we [aren’t] friends, but they know how it is when we are off the court.”
Another player who will be relied upon more this season is senior guard Tanksley Efianayi. Efianayi worked on a consistent outside jump shot and overall conditioning this summer. He feels that his versatile skill set and experience will aid UCF this season.
“I’m obviously more experienced this year,“ Efianayi said. “One of my strengths is getting to the basket, creating for others and that’s a strength I can help the team with this year.”
Efianayi says that the core guys who will be cheering the rest of the team on instead of playing, still play an essential role to the Knights’ success.
“Our guys that are sitting out push us,” Efianayi said. “This isn’t just a wasted year for them, they’re sitting out, but they’re gong hard every day and learning every day from coach Dawkins and our whole coaching staff.”
Dawkins goal for his team is to meet the standards that they’ve set in place regardless of the preconceived obstacles the Knights may face.
“What we have is meeting our standards; I want to see how we compete every night,” Dawkins said. “We have got to go out there and show that we want it more than the opponent every night.”