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November 13, 2009

UCF welcomes UMass for opener

13 years later, UCF and UMass meet again on the hardwood.

The two teams faced off in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament in Providence, R.I and at the time UMass was ranked No. 1 and led by future NBA star Marcus Camby.

It will be more of an even matchup when the Knights and Minutemen tip-off tonight in their season opener at the UCF Arena.

Both teams are young and many players will see their first collegiate action. UCF has the second youngest team in the nation by underclassmen and UMass will likely play eight new players, including five freshmen.

With such a young team, UCF head coach Kirk Speraw says nothing is set in stone when it comes to a starting lineup or playing rotation.

"Until we get some things established it will be an interesting from a coaching standpoint to see who earns those minutes and who is successful in game situations," Speraw said. "Some people don't do as well in practice, but do great in games. Some do great in practice and not so well in games. We've got to sift through all of that. I'd just like to do it against an opponent not as good as UMass is, but it is what it is so we'll step out there and go to battle."

In last week's 84-65 exhibition victory over St. Leo, P.J. Gaynor led UCF with 18 points and eight rebounds, while freshman Keith Clanton chipped in 16 points and eight boards. A.J. Rompza (16 points) and Taylor Young (11 points) also scored in double figures.

"We found a lot of things we needed to work on, but that wasn't a surprise," Speraw said. "We're making progress. We're going to be a work in progress for a long time, but the guys have a good approach to things. They're learning each and every day. It's a slower process, but I thought in the last week or so there's been some guys who are starting to kick it in as we get into game week. They started to elevate their focus and that's good. Hopefully the younger guys can learn from those guys. I think as a whole they're taking steps in the right direction."

UMass is entering their second season under Derek Kellogg, who was the former lead assistant under John Calipari at Memphis. The Minutemen are coming off a 12-18 season in 2008-09 and were selected to finish ninth out of 14 teams in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll.

They return one of their conference's best players in guard Ricky Harris, who averaged 18.2 points a year ago.

"This is going to be a tough preparation for us because it's the first game of the year and we've not seen them play at all," Speraw said. "We're going in pretty blind with this year's team. Certainly we know from last year they have two tremendous scorers on the wing in Harris and Anthony Gurley. Harris is probably every bit as good as any guard we'll see all year in his ability to score, penetrate and drive. They are an exceptionally athletic team and they'll be as athletic as the Memphis teams. They've got length and they can run.

"I'm assuming they'll do a lot of the same things they did at Memphis, but they've got a lot of new players in the front line so does that change their approach at all? We won't know. It's disconcerting not to have information going into your first game about what you're going to face with their offense or defense. We'll just have to adjust as we go along, which makes it more complicated because of the youth and immaturity that we have. They'll have to make game changes and that will make it difficult."

Kellogg, who faced UCF three times as an assistant at Memphis, has always been regarded as a top-notch recruiter. His incoming class, led by Terrell Vinson, ranked at the top of the A-10.

"Derek is a good guy and he certainly played a big part in all the success at Memphis in recruiting all of those guys," Speraw said. "He goes back to his alma mater to take over a storied program. They've got a long history at UMass of great players and great teams. The last time we played UMass they were No. 1 in the country. He's going back home and he's going to do a great job for them up there. He's recruited well and he's got one of the renowned recruiting classes in the country. Those guys, like our guys, it will be their first time in a collegiate game. It will be a tough battle for us."

Tonight's season opener falls during homecoming week and fans are encouraged to wear black to the game as part of the "Armored in Black" promotion. UCF's season ticket sales are up 20 percent, an all-time high.

"I think the interest is high out there and it should be for these guys," Speraw said. "They're really going to be a fun group to watch. It will be fun for everybody to watch them mature and grow together as a team and unit. They'll be an exciting group... I think it's great this is a part of homecoming and certainly the opponent should create tremendous interest to have a quality team like UMass coming in here. Hopefully we'll get a great community turnout. I know we'll get a great student turnout."

UCF Basketball Season Opener - Armored in Black

Who, What: UCF Basketball season is here! The Knights will open the regular season against UMass as part of the weekend's homecoming festivities. As part of the "Armored in Black" marketing promotion, fans are encouraged to wear black to both the UMass basketball game and Houston football game. Also, the first 2,000 students will receive a "Knightmare" headband.

When & Where: Friday, November 13 with tip-off set for 7 p.m. at the UCF Arena.

Tickets: Call the UCF Ticket Office at (407) 823-1000 or visit UCFAthletics.com for more information about season tickets or premium seating opportunities. Season tickets start at just $79 and single-game tickets are as low as $5. As always, students are free with ID.



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