Photo Courtesy: UCF Athletics
By Leo Rodriguez
A loss to the Oregon Ducks in the Second Round of the NIT Tournament wraps up the 2022-23 season for UCF, a season in which the Knights finished 19-15.
There were plenty of highs and lows for this UCF team this season. Remember when they were 13-4 coming off an exhilarating win over Memphis in double overtime? What happened afterwards? In this post season recap I bring you closer to the Knights ups and downs and what to look forward to as this program moves into the Big 12.
UCF suffered some early season heart breaks within the first 15 games, with four losses coming by a combined margin of 12 points; UNC Asheville, Miami, Houston and the most painful, Mizzou on a last second half court heave.
Entering Conference play the Knights looked quite the team, giving the then number three team in the nation a run for its money in Houston. A 71-65 loss to the Cougars was something the Knights took as something to build on moving forward. UCF started off with a 4-1 Conference record and was coming off a double overtime win vs. Memphis, despite losing Darius Johnson and Michael Durr right before that game. Things at UCF would start turning dark in a hurry though.
The Knights were feeling confident with Houston at the top of the Conference. Then suddenly that feeling started to slip away as injuries piled on and team chemistry seemed to weaken as the season progressed. UCF would go on to lose 10 of its last 15 Conference games including Tournament play. In this part of the recap, I provide analysis of what I believe went wrong during the second half of the season.
Michael Durr and Darius Johnson missed a good chunk of time early in Conference play. Darius Johnson missed four games due to a leg injury and Michael Durr missed eight games following a left hand injury. UCF struggled to defend when both players were out at the same time. The Knights gave up 100 points to Memphis and let Tulane and USF put up more than 75 points. Prior to these games UCF had only allowed 75 plus points twice 15 games deep into the season. You could very well say that these two players had an impact on the downward spiral of the season but as a coach, the next man up has to have the capabilities to get it done in times of need and that’s what separates a good roster from a subpar one. Depth. (Also of note: CJ Walker shut down for the year early in the season.)
The team’s offensive struggles proved to be a major issue throughout the season. Despite their efforts to improve, the team consistently struggled to score points when desperately needed, resulting in a significant number of losses. One of the key issues has been a lack of scoring options. The team relied heavily on CJ Kelly, Taylor Hendricks and, at times, Ithiel Horton, to carry the bulk of the offensive load, which made it easy for opposing teams to defend against them. Sometimes one of those guys had an off night, making it even easier for the opposing team to stymie the Knights. Offensive strategy was often too predictable, and a lack of Taylor Hendricks being let loose on the offensive end were perplexing. At times I thought Head Coach Johnny Dawkins was doing that to protect Hendricks, but other times I found it curious he didn’t get involved more within the offense.
Far too many times this season we saw a team a little disjointed. Could it be because all of the new transfers UCF brought in before the year? One of the main issues was a lack of communication between players on the offensive end. UCF often had trouble executing plays and passing the ball effectively due to miscommunication on the court. This led to turnovers and missed opportunities, which hurt their chances of winning games. During the season, Coach Dawkins talked about connecting plays and they just weren’t there on a consistent basis.
What’s Next for UCF?
On to “the premier conference in college basketball” sounds like a very intimidating thing, right? Yes and no. This is obviously an exciting time in UCF history, moving on to a Power 5 conference like the Big 12. But it’s also full of opportunity for UCF to reinvent itself into a basketball school or at least become better than what they have been in the past. That requires more funding and better recruiting to compete with elite basketball schools. It all sounds very dandy. It’s going to take a lot of work. To date it looks like UCF will move forward with Johnny Dawkins at the helm into the Big 12. This might not be welcome by many fans expecting a quick fix that certainly doesn’t exist but financially UCF is what it is and it has looked very clear they are not willing to do any type of major spending for the basketball program. The practice facilities are outdated. The complacency has been clear up to now.
No doubt, Vice President & Director of Athletics Terry Mohajir hears from boosters and donors at the conclusion of a season as he works to figure out what’s best to bring success to the program. Does this program progress, stagnate or regress? As for Coach Dawkins, he’s been considered a great representative of UCF, very professional and respected around college basketball. Not to mention, despite results, he’s a great basketball mind. Its time Coach Dawkins gets some support to put a consistent March Madness product on the floor. We can say with Taylor Hendricks’ recruitment to UCF, it is clear Dawkins is working his hardest on the recruiting trail with what he has. With Hendricks announcing he’s declared for the NBA Draft, it will be interesting to see how Dawkins uses Hendricks’ one and done season as a Knight to show players they can achieve success in a Knights’ uniform.
Leonardo Rodriguez is a current UCF student majoring in Spanish and minoring in Journalism who expects to graduate in 2023. Leo is serving as a beat writer for the Sons of UCF and works with the UCF Spanish broadcast team for the football games. A sports aficionado, Leo grew up having a wide range of knowledge in basketball, football, baseball, and soccer. Leo is also a military veteran with four years of service.