With a month to go before the first game, UCF basketball coach Donnie Jones met with members of the local media to preview the season ahead.
The Knights are gearing up for what will be the most difficult schedule in program history. UCF has made the move to the American Athletic Conference, featuring basketball heavyweights such as Louisville, UConn, Memphis, Cincinnati and Temple, and the non-conference slate includes matchups against Florida State and Miami.
During the 10-minute interview, Jones talks about the new league, how they go about replacing an impact player like Keith Clanton, the continued development of Isaiah Sykes, and much more.
How did the pinstripe jerseys come about?
"We were looking for something different like we did with the court," Jones said. "How do we brand our program? I kind of liked the old Orlando Magic look that they had back in the Shaq days. I thought that might be appealing to the Orlando community, so we kind of went with that look thinking that would be something neat because I haven't seen too many programs across the country wearing pinstripes."
What does it mean for UCF to have a schedule like they do playing in the American Athletic Conference?
"Incredible challenge, one. Incredible opportunity, two. I think our guys are excited about that opportunity. With who we return, I think we've got good experience. Obviously losing Keith Clanton is a big loss, but I think you take them one at a time. Try not look at who the next one up is. That will be the biggest thing for us. The mindset of handling the competitive teams night in and night out, how you handle a huge victory or how you handle a tough loss. It's how you come back next. Now that you have a very competitive schedule, that's the big challenge."
You return four starters, including the big two in Isaiah Sykes and Tristan Spurlock. You do lose Keith Clanton, but what does it mean to have the core group back?
"It means a lot. Experience means that guys have been there. I think knowing what's expected of our program, but the unexpected is who we play night in and night out. A lot of the new guys will be key figures for us coming in. I think we'll have to do it by committee for Keith's position. Eugene McCrory coming in will be a big help for us, and Staphon Blair and Dylan Karell made strides. I think those three guys will be the focal point in trying to fill that void."
Not having a postseason opportunity last year, how excited is this group to have that chance this year?
"We haven't talked about that, but we know that's the opportunity that we do have for this year. I think that our focus is always to compete in the conference. I think if you take care of your conference it puts you in a situation to play in the NCAA Tournament, especially in this conference when you have four teams in this league that went to the NCAA Tournament last year and you've got two teams that have won the national championship in the last three years. From a tradition and a competitive standpoint, you have some of the best teams."
In trying to replace Keith Clanton, junior college newcomer Eugene McCrory is a player we don't know much about. What kind of game does he bring?
"Eugene's game is different than Keith's. He's a post-up, strong post-up block guy. He's a lefty. He can score on the block and really knows how to seal. An excellent rebounder as well, like Keith was. Plays hard. Plays tough. Doesn't have the outside threat that Keith had and the ball-handling skills, but gives us a different big man presence than what we had last year."
What are the intangibles that you'll miss from Keith Clanton?
"I think any time you lose a guy that had that kind of career over four years, just his presence in the locker room and his leadership. He won his three years with me, 20-plus games. He's used to winning and he brought that culture here. That will have to be carried on by the guys who have come back. The other guys are going to have to pick those spots up. We can't replace what Keith has done, we'll have to do it in a different way."
Isaiah Sykes seems to have made a big jump every year. What strides do you think he's made going into his senior year?
"It's going to be a different focus for him. A lot of the pressure was on Keith last year, so that gave him the ability to do things which really helped our team. This year he'll see the treatment that Keith got last year as a senior with a lot of attention.
"One thing that Sykes does a great job is he's one of the most unselfish players I've ever coached. He makes everyone around him better. He's done a good job in practice in really including his teammates. He's realizing that the success of our team is not only going to be because of him, but it's going to be how well those guys play around him. That's going to make us all better. He's done a great job I think in practice in really encouraging and teaching these young guys how to be a part of winning."
Is Daiquan Walker your point guard, or will it be more point guard by committee?
"It will be by committee. I think Daiquan will play the point for us. Calvin Newell, we've really worked a lot with him being at the point and being more of a pass-first guy instead of a shoot-first guy. He has the ability to do that. Then obviously we've got Brandon Goodwin coming in as a freshman. We've got three guys that can play multiple positions. They can also play the off guard, which I like having the ability to do both."
Matt Williams battled with health issues last year with his appendix. What are your expectations for him being at full health?
"Matt has really improved. He's 220. He came in at 180. He's gained 40 pounds. He's been one of the hardest workers of anybody we've had. Experience was great for him last year to be a part of what he was able to do, even when he wasn't at full strength. But I think his experience now, understanding his role a little bit, his ability to shoot the basketball and do other things, can really help our team. I think he's going to be an important factor for us."
Calvin Newell missed the early part of last year before he became eligible. How big is it for him being part of the team at the beginning of the year?
"He sat seven games and he sat a whole year before that. It takes a while to get in the flow. Now coming into the season he knows who he's playing with. He knows what's expected. He knows he's going to play in that first game. It's a different focus as you go throughout the year. I think that will be huge. He's a senior and played a lot of games. Tristan Spurlock is a fifth-year senior, Sykes, all three of those guys have played a lot of games at this level."
Isaiah Sykes explored the NBA Draft waters this past spring and received feedback about what he needed to do to play at that next level. How did he handle that feedback and what areas did he focus on going into the season?
"Zeke was anxious to hear what he needed to do. His goal is to play in the NBA, but I think he was very humbled in the aspect that he loves UCF just like Keith Clanton. Wanted to come back moving into this new conference and being able to take us to a different level. I think he's really worked on his shot. His shot has gotten better. He knew that was one thing he needed to improve. His free throw being another. He gets fouled a lot because he's got the ability to create. Those are two factors that he had to get better at. You know what, he's a multi-position player. He can play three spots. He'll play the point guard at times this year too, in certain aspects of the game. I think he's improved in a lot of areas and he's really worked hard this summer."
How do you see Tristan Spurlock's role changing in being more of the second option after Sykes?
"Tristan will be more of a focal point for us, especially offensively. He'll play the four spot some, kind of like what Keith did at times last year. And he'll also play the three and the two. I think he's a mismatch guy with ability on the perimeter and size to cause problems because he can rebound and post up. And at the four, he's a pick and pop mismatch guy with the way he can shoot the ball. But yeah, he will be a guy we will run plays for and offensively look for him to give us more scoring and rebounding."
Do you get excited about matching wits with some of the coaches in this league, such as Rick Pitino?
"It's always about our team. Obviously you get a chance to play against great coaches and great programs. It's always a great challenge and we've been able to do that the past three years. We've played against some pretty good coaches and some pretty good teams. I've been fortunate being with who I've been with, being with Billy Donovan and people like that, had a chance to watch one of the greatest coaches. It's been great to do that. It's always exciting to play against great programs to raise the bar to have a chance to see where we need to get to and where we're all striving to get to."
What are the goals for the season? Have you outlined what you need to do to take the next step?
"We've just really talked about our team. That's really what it's been. Defensively, it's all about defense. That gives us a chance to win every night with the way we defend. I think we're offensively talented enough that we can score. This is probably our best scoring team that we've had here in the three years I've been here. It is going to be about our ability to be able to defend and rebound. When you do that you have a chance to win."
This conference will offer great TV exposure and playing marquee teams. Are you seeing an impact in recruiting?
"Well, I can't talk about the recruits but you've seen the impact that it's had. I think we've really tried to spread the word that we've got a great place right here in Orlando at home. Obviously having a chance to be on national TV. We've never had an ESPN game in this building ever before and now we're going to have a bunch of them this year. I think playing against some of the best in the country, national championship caliber teams. Now this is a place here that I think kids, especially in the state of Florida, realize they can stay home and play at. It's had great impact in that aspect with the chance to be on the national scene and compete night in and night out."
What's the outlook in the conference? You're coming from Conference USA which was usually a one-bid league, maybe two, and now this should be a top conference with multiple bids.
"It's going to be one of the top five (conferences) without question. Getting the defending national champion (Louisville) in here and UConn won it two years ago and now you've got three other teams that have been in the top 25 at one time or another. When you have that type of talent, night in and night out, it's going to be a battle. At least when you're in your conference you have a chance to advance in the RPI because you're playing against such good teams."