DALLAS, Tex. — The holiday break has come and gone, and college basketball is set to get underway once again on Wednesday evening.
Wednesday marks the start of conference play for many teams across the country, and with that comes a plethora of intriguing match-ups as a late Christmas gift for fans across the nation. One of those must-see games will take place in Dallas, as the SMU Mustangs put their 31-game home winning streak on the line against the visiting UCF Knights.
Both teams come out of the holiday break riding winning streaks, and have the look of two top teams in the American Athletic Conference race this season. A win for either team will boost their confidence, as they try to keep pace with the Wichita State Shockers.
In 2016-17, the Mustangs won both meetings against the Knights. They picked up a 65-60 win in Orlando in their only regular season meeting, then added a 70-59 win in the AAC Tournament. UCF will look to score a little revenge on Wednesday night on the Mustangs’ home court.
ORLANDO, Fla. — UCF guard A.J. Davis dreamed about playing at Madison Square Garden.
Now, he can check it off his bucket list.
The Knights advanced to the National Invitation Tournament semi-finals, fighting off Illinois, 68-58. The Fighting Illini led for only one minute and 53 seconds during a game in which they shot an anemic 30.6 percent.
“Every game we are just trying to not give up threes and layups (and) make guys shoot tough twos,” UCF center Tacko Fall said. “We work on it every day.”
NORMAL, Ill. — Postseason basketball; a new season for all.
Although it was not in the tournament they desired, Illinois State clubbed pesky UC Irvine in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, 85-71.
Seniors Deontae Hawkins and Paris Lee, in a showing that featured the Redbirds shooting 52% from beyond the arc,scored 22 and 13 points respectively to advance the active home winning streak to 22 games.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Entering 2017, the UCF Knights ride in with an 11-3 record, a four-game winning streak, and an unblemished conference start. Four Knights are scoring in double-figures while A.J. Davis continues to stuff stat-sheets and sophomore Chad Brown plays better each game.
But, one piece is missing, and it is one that could make this Knights’ squad the first to make the NCAA Tournament since 2005.
“It’s still day-by-day to see what happens,” said UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins of point guard B.J. Taylor. “We are hoping that he continues to get healthy and when they (the doctors) give us the word, we will be ready for him to get going.”
B.J. Taylor, the team’s leading scorer and facilitator, has missed the past seven games with a broken thumb. According to the Sports Injury Clinic, a cast is utilized for three-to-six weeks after the injury is sustained. Thus, it is surprising that the homegrown talent has yet to receive medical clearance.
“No, he is not medically cleared,” said Dawkins. “Not right now.”
Taylor was averaging 16.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 1.4 steals per game prior to injury. Last season, the 6’2″ point guard missed the entire campaign due to a lower leg injury. As a result, the Knights floundered in conference play and went 12-18 overall.
This season, UCF is trying to avoid such an experience, and it shouldn’t be a problem doing so.
This year’s personnel is more experienced than seasons past. Three-point assassins Matt Williams (15.8 PPG & 5.6 RPG) and Tank Efianayi (12.1 PPG & 5.5 RPG) are seniors. Primary ball-handler (without Taylor) A.J. Davis (7.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, & 2.8 APG) as well as post players Tacko Fall (15.4 PPG & 11.5 RPG) and Chad Brown (5.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG) are all in their second year within the program. Broadly, UCF has too much knowledge and skill within circumstances to revert back to that level of mediocracy.
Earlier in the season, Davis missed the first five games with a broken hand. The Knights played well and experienced their only loss to 2016 National Champions Villanova. Hence, UCF is no stranger to playing short-handed (take yesterday versus Temple for example).
Though, Taylor returning sooner, rather than later, would help for the heart of conference play.
“I know he will be back sometime this season,” Dawkins said. “I know that will happen. It’s just a matter of time for him.”
Currently, the Knights are 5-2 during Taylor’s absence as opposed to 6-1 with the 2014-15 AAC All-Rookie selection in the starting lineup. While no immediate threat arrives in Orlando on Tuesday with East Carolina, tougher challenges are ahead. On January 8, a trip to UConn dots the schedule prior to Houston traveling south for a matchup.
By January 22, the Knights will be immersed in a six-game span that includes a home-and-home with Memphis, hosting SMU, and traveling to southern Ohio to face the only ranked team within the AAC, the 23rd ranked Cincinnati Bearcats.
Obviously, Johnny Dawkins does not want to rush back his superstar. But, to avoid wasting a year of eligibility, Taylor must return by late January.
To receive a medical hardship waiver, a player typically has to play in less than 30 percent of his team’s games. Currently, the Boone High School star has played just 7 games in a 31-game schedule (includes conference tournament). Thus, a tough decision could occur if mid-February arrives and Taylor is still not in the starting lineup.
Hopefully, B.J. Taylor will return within the next two weeks and all of the aforementioned can be chalked up as speculation. Nevertheless, the most anyone can say about the point guard right now is he is “day-to-day” and not medically cleared.