UCF Basketball is off to a surprising start in the Big 12
“I think we will develop an appetite for hoops this spring seeing the caliber of teams in our conference and wanting a piece of that. 7-11 in conference play last year was enough to get a Big Dance invite in the Big 12. Let’s not finish last, steal a ranked win at home, and just try to be competitive. Dawkins is a nice, good man. Just don’t embarrass us, please. I’m here for the vibes.”
That was me two weeks ago in my 2024 State of the Union article to kick off the year. Well, damnit Dawkins, you accomplished my ask only six games into league play our inaugural year hoopin’ in the Big 12 Conference. What looked to be a lackluster start out of conference with a loss to Stetson, a team which we’ve beaten twenty straight times previously, we have now surprised as the latest newcomer picked to finish dead last in conference previews. I’d like to first get this off my chest with the Dawkins Disciples running a victory lap around the Dawkins Deniers. You had no idea ANY of this was on the horizon. And that’s OKAY. We’re all enjoying this serendipitous journey together. I guess it is true what they say: Come into things with low expectations and just enjoy the ride.
I thought we were dead in the water after our first Big 12 conference game against Kansas State. I shuddered to think of another team limping out of Manhattan in their conference debut much like our football team did last fall. At least football has the juice and backing, Resources Twitter so vehemently pronounces whenever you talk about Dawkins’s shortcomings. The wild thing is Johnny has already outdone Gus’s Big 12 entrance with still a lot more ball to play. Already matched his conference win total and he’s doing it against legacy conference members, not newcomers like us. We’re currently .500 in conference with wins against #3 Kansas, last year’s Elite 8 Texas on the road, and now a wire-to-wire drubbing of West Virginia at home. Losses have come to Kansas State, a surging BYU, and juggernaut Houston. Completely mixed bag of production but we have showcased ourselves to be a TOP 5 team defensively, Dawkins’s hallmark.
Is it a contract year pop why we’re so competitive this first year? I think most had Dawkins as a lame-duck coach this year. He had never finished higher than 3rd in the American Athletic Conference. After our thrilling double OT win against Memphis last year, we slogged to an 8-10 conference record with two ugly losses to the cows finishing 19-15. Yes, we beat the Gators in the NIT, but then we followed that up by laying down like dogs in Eugene getting euthanized by the Ducks. Taylor Hendricks went off to get drafted and we celebrated with fanfare. Still finished 7th in the conference with an exodus of transfer portal talent. (How’s that grass in Austin Ithiel?)
We’ve had no basketball identity. Our program’s highest crowning achievement is ALMOST beating Duke in the NCAA Tournament. A missed layup from Aubrey Dawkins is an image etched in the mind of every UCF fan. Sure, there was a push in the back by Zion Williamson but it was a canon moment of “UCiF” lore. The Dawkins Disciples have held on to that run to keep them warm for quite some time but the Deniers will tell you it was with Donnie Jones’s workhorses. This season was definitely at the brink of a breaking point of what we want to be. Picked to finish last unanimously in the conference, our expectations were nil. It has been a wonderful surprise to see what we can become. I was right in the notion that we would whet our appetite for Big 12 basketball. I’ve never watched this much conference basketball outside of the Knights in my life. Usually, it was getting up for a Memphis basketball game or a juicy Cincinnati matchup. The American has been historically a two-bid league. Looks like our left-behind delusional friends out West have a direct line to the league office PR Machine too.
Does Johnny Dawkins deserve another contract? I don’t know. A six-game sample size into league play is not enough for me. He is by far the most successful head basketball coach in our short history. That’s not saying much though. I often disdained the Black and Gold Banneret article “Johnny Dawkins Gives UCF Basketball Fans Way More Than They Give Him.” Relationships should be give and take, and an opportunity for both parties to grow together and thrive. If there is a competitive, engaging product people will come. Here’s the thing though. The Big 12 Conference is by far the best league in the country. If we go .500 in conference every year, that will always be enough to get to the Big Dance. With Johnny Dawkins at the helm, it’s almost like an infinite cheat code! At Stanford Dawkins posted a conference win record of 66-78 (.458). He made the Sweet Sixteen once and won the NIT twice. In the American while at UCF, he has posted a conference win record of 65-61 (.515) taking us to the Round of 32 in 2019 and two trips to the NIT. He’s always hovered as a mid-coach and maybe that will be enough for us. Is it too much to ask to go dancing every other year? He’s never finished higher than 3rd in a league. In our new paradigm, that would place us in the upper third of secured bids to endure the Madness.
We are a completely blank slate when it comes to hoops. UCF as an institution makes no sense. It’s like Dubai in the desert. A “directional commuter school” that came out of nowhere, and now has arrived and is here to stay.
We don’t have much deep tradition but the things that do stick come in hot and in a fury.
Fear The Fronds.
In a few short weeks, we’ve carved a stingy defensive prowess and no-quit identity garnering a groundswell of momentum for our Men’s Hoops and respectability amongst our peers. The country has taken notice of our home court advantage. We have surprised ourselves too. East Orlando is becoming a hard place to play.
We love a good tailgate.
We love a good time.
We love vibes.
Maybe the biggest lesson about this inaugural basketball season is that “expectations are the thief of joy.” Johnny Dawkins is maneuvering the SEC of his sport, while another head coach on campus with higher expectations is being a sport about no longer maneuvering in the SEC. Makes you think.
We’re on to Cincinnati.
Shemarri Allen is hurt after a rolled ankle finishing the West Virginia game. Next man up.
If Dawkins brings a ‘W’ back to Orlando Saturday night, maybe I tell Terry to start drafting some contract extension language.