UCF's NIT journey continues Monday with a date in Normal, Ill., against No. 1 seed Illinois State.
It's also a homecoming for senior Nick Banyard, who spent his redshirt sophomore and junior seasons with the Redbirds before joining the Knights this season as a graduate transfer.
"I'm definitely excited to go back and see everybody and play on the court again," Banyard said. "I did think (about playing Illinois State) and dream about it before the season, but I didn't think it would happen. Now it's here and I'm happy about it."
Banyard, who graduated from ISU last summer, left in search of a bigger role than the bench player he was at Illinois State, averaging 5.2 points and 4.3 rebounds last season.
The Texas native, who started 19 of 33 games this year, has become one of UCF's key players. A buzzer-beater three during non-conference play at UMass lifted UCF to an important road win. He found his stride late in conference play, posting a pair of double-doubles in UCF's back-to-back road wins at East Carolina (18 points, 11 rebounds) and Temple (11 points, 10 rebounds). He also had a 10-rebound game in the victory against No. 15 Cincinnati.
"We thought he would bring some physicality and a guy who can knock down a shot," UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said recently. "He's shot over 50 percent from three this season and has really helped us. I didn't know how good of a rebounder he would be. That was a plus for us. Something you may not see, he's one of our most headsy basketball players. He has a good basketball IQ, he knows what's going on. He wasn't a captain initially, but I named him a captain during the season because of his impact on and off the court."
Illinois State (28-6) posted an impressive 17-1 league record in the Missouri Valley Conference, earning co-champion status after splitting the regular season series with Wichita State before falling in the conference tournament championship game to the Shockers. ISU was one of the first teams out of the NCAA Tournament bubble as the committee felt their overall schedule strength wasn't up to par to warrant inclusion.
The Redbirds feature a trio of double-digit scorers: Deontae Hawkins (14.0 ppg), Paris Lee (13.1) and MiKyle McIntosh (12.7). Hawkins scored 22 points, including a perfect 6-of-6 from three-point range, in ISU's 85-71 first-round NIT win against UC-Irvine.
"The reason they're successful this year is they're really unselfish," Banyard said of his former team. "They look for everybody. Everybody is playing their role, working extremely hard on offense and on the defensive end as well which is what they hang their hat on. Just like us, they really get it going on the defensive end and everything else falls into place offensively."
As for playing style, Dawkins said they were somewhat reminiscent of UConn.
"They're very well coached," Dawkins said. "Dan (Muller) does a great job with his team. They play hard. They play the right way. They really share the basketball. They execute very well.. I think they're very unselfish, very active. Of anybody in our conference, they're a little bit like UConn with really good guard play out front and real active bigs."
Banyard said he offered a little input into UCF's scouting report of the Redbirds.
"It's more about going up there and doing what we do," Banyard said. "Do everything collectively as a team. Do what we did all year that led us to being No. 1 in defensive field-goal percentage."
Banyard says he left on good terms and still communicates with several of their players. He's looking forward to being back in Redbird Arena on Monday, though obviously this time from the other side.
"I'm still close with MiKyle McIntosh," Banyard said. "We just FaceTimed as soon as they won. Him and a couple players called me. I still talk to him and Paris Lee. We're still real good friends. I still wish them the best and they the same for me."
-Dawkins on Friday said point guard B.J. Taylor wasn't feeling any negative effects from eye issues suffered in last Wednesday's Colorado game. Midway through the first half, Taylor received a shoulder to the face which left his right eye in considerable pain, requiring eye drops during halftime and again at another point in the second half. He still scored 26 points.
"He's doing better," Dawkins said. "I don't see him blinking as much. It's not as irritated. That's a good thing. He's feeling better and looking forward to having a good practice today."
-Illinois State drew a crowd of 5,124 for last Wednesday's first-round NIT game against UC-Irvine. That was a little below their season average of 5,816, but that was with their student body on spring break. They'll be back in class this week.
"It'll be a tough crowd," Banyard said. "A lot of people who go to school there are from that area. We're expecting a good crowd, a good atmosphere."
-Monday's game will be televised by ESPN, which is believed to be UCF men's basketball's first appearance on the flagship network since they played in Atlantic Sun Conference championship games in the early 2000s. The American has a television contract with ESPN Networks, but in recent years UCF has only appeared on ESPN2, ESNPU and ESPNews.
-UCF boarded a charter flight late Sunday morning to Central Illinois Regional Airport, which serves the Bloomington and Normal metropolitan area. Chicago, where UCF has a significant alumni base, is about a two-hour drive north.
-Awaiting the winner of UCF-Illinois State will be either No. 2 Illinois or No. 6 Boise State, whose game immediately follows at 9 p.m. on ESPN. Should UCF advance, they'd host the third-round quarterfinal game at CFE Arena on Wednesday even if Illinois wins because their home arena, the State Farm Center, has already been booked with another event.
-Illinois State is the only No. 1 seed remaining in the NIT. Cal lost in the first round, while Syracuse (defeated by Ole Miss) and Iowa (defeated by TCU) lost in second-round games played over the weekend.