Living in the opponent’s air space, scrapping on the floor for loose balls, and locked in and engaged for each and every eternity of a second on the shot clock.
The UCF men’s basketball team has assumed a defensive personality that has created the founding principles for a winning culture on the court.
Coming into the season, first year head coach Johnny Dawkins was tasked with getting his new team to not only buy in to being a fortress on defense, but also adapting it into how they approach games as individuals and as a unit.
Dawkins believes that for the team to be successful, it has to start with vigilance and a commitment to the details on defense from top to bottom.
“If you want to win at the level we want to win at, you have to be committed to that end of the floor,” Dawkins said. “It’s not easy and it’s something we have to be vigilant with … we all have to take ownership with what we do in every practice and every game.”
Just 18 games into the season, Dawkins’ message seems to have found a permanent home in his team’s style of play. The Knights (14-4, 5-1 AAC) are currently leading the nation in field goal percentage defense (34.1) and defensive rebounding (33.2). UCF is also third in overall scoring defense (58.2) and just second in total rebounds per game (44.4).
Last season, the Knights ranked No. 70, 26 and 75 in defensive field goal percentage, defensive rebounding and total rebounding—three categories that they’re currently resting in the top three of the NCAA. UCF has already surpassed their overall record from last year (12-18, 6-12 AAC) with 12 games remaining in the season and they’re just one win away from matching last season’s six wins in conference play.
Redshirt junior forward A.J. Davis believes that the biggest difference in the team’s success is that Dawkins doesn’t have to challenge them to defend anymore because they’re already committed to it.
“After we saw some success with it, there wasn’t even a need to challenge us … we’re just a more defensive minded team—we know we have to do that to win,” Davis said. “I think defense is our primary focus.”
And the numbers back up Davis’ claim that defense has become UCF’s number one priority each night.
Based on UCF’s defensive rating per 100 possessions, which measures how many times an opposing player scores on the defender, the whole team has improved dramatically. In the 2015-16 season, of players who recorded at least five minutes played, all but one player on the team, sophomore center Tacko Fall, had a defensive rating under 100—which means UCF wasn’t entirely efficient on defense.
But this season, all nine players in the Knights’ rotation has accounted for defensive ratings under 100 and a large reason why that is, is due to the team’s defensive anchors, Fall and redshirt sophomore guard B.J. Taylor.
Fall and Taylor represent the backbones of the defense with Taylor leading the Knights in steals (1.6) and Fall leading the team in blocks (2.4). The sophomore 7-foot-6 big man has also learned that communication is a key component to a successful defense.
“Part of it is communication,” Fall said. “For instance with me being on the backside and trying to direct everybody on what to do. Last year, I don’t think I was much of a talker on defense, but this year I think it has become a big part of my game.”
Fall’s increased attentiveness to communicating and finishing off possessions with a block or rebound has led him to be more imposing around the rim this year. UCF’s tower is averaging a team-high 10.3 rebounds to go with his 2.4 rejections.
But even though Fall and Taylor represent the groundwork of a UCF defense that sits among the best in the NCAA, Davis believes it takes all five players to stop opposing teams.
“B.J. starts it off with the pressure and Tacko’s protecting everything in the middle,” Davis said. “That’s definitely key because that’s the start and the end of it. Everybody does their part … it doesn’t work if all five puzzle pieces don’t work together.”
The Knights will need to continue to gel defensively because of their final 12 games, four of which games include teams ranked in the top-four in the AAC, averaging 76 points per game on 47 percent field goal shooting.
At times this season, UCF hasn’t always played up to the standard set for them each night, displaying a lapse in general focus. But Dawkins will look to keep his team away from any identity crisis down the line, urging his team to stick to the defensive principles they’ve devoted themselves to.
“We hang our hat on [defense] and we have to get back to those fundamentals—things that they’ve worked on since last spring … it should be becoming habit by now,” Dawkins said. “We’re midway through the season, so a good reminder should help our guys figure it out.”
Christopher Davis is a contributor for the Central Florida Focus covering the UCF men’s basketball beat. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChristopherDTV.