Last season was supposed to be the breakout year for UCF. With the return of key players such as B.J. Taylor, Tacko Fall and A.J. Davis from a team that made a deep run to NIT semifinals in 2017 — Johnny Dawkins’ first season at the school — optimism was at an all-time high at this point last year.
Then injuries got in the way. Aubrey Dawkins, the coach’s son who was eligible after transferring from Michigan, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in late October. Taylor took an awkward fall in UCF’s opener and missed the opening half of the season due to a fractured foot. He returned in time for the bulk of conference play but was far from 100 percent. Fall, a game changer defensively with his 7'6" frame, played with shoulder issues until the pain finally caught up to him and he opted for season-ending surgery in late January. Despite all of the setbacks, the Knights scrapped and clawed to a respectable 19–13 finish, but it wasn’t enough to warrant a repeat trip to the NIT.
Assuming everybody can stay healthy, Dawkins could have a team that can challenge for the AAC title. He returns seven of his top eight scorers, and it could be argued that no team in the league can match the proven experience on UCF’s roster.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Johnny Dawkins
2017-18 RECORD (AAC): 19-13 (9-9)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: None
F A.J. Davis (12.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg)
G Djordjije Mumin (2.9 ppg)
UCF boasts perhaps the nation’s most unique stopper in Fall. The hope is the prolific shot blocker returns to his sophomore form in which he earned league Defensive Player of the Year honors and helped the Knights lead the nation in field goal percentage defense (.365). If his offensive game can take another step — which has been a big point of emphasis — he could emerge as one of the most impactful big men in the nation. Fall averaged 11.3 points and shot 76.7 percent from the field in his injury-shortened junior season.
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The length doesn’t stop with Fall. Collin Smith, a 6'11" power forward, is eligible this season after transferring from George Washington and is expected to be a major contributor. Smith averaged 5.3 points and 4.4 rebounds in only 17.0 minutes per game of action as a freshman at GW in 2016-17.
Senior power forward Chad Brown gives the front line depth whether he’s filling in as a starter or coming off the bench as the sixth man.
Taylor is well on his way to cementing his status as the best point guard in program history. He’s already joined the 1,000-point club after averaging 17.4 and 15.9 points per game the past two years. Clutch under pressure, Taylor could be poised for a Player of the Year-type season.
Expectations were high for Dawkins before he went down with the injury. He is a 6'6" wing who possesses elite athleticism and a terrific 3-point shot. Dawkins shot 43.9 percent from 3 during his two seasons at Michigan.
Shooting guard Ceasar DeJesus is coming off a solid rookie campaign in which he started all 32 games — a program record for a freshman — and averaged 8.6 points. His offensive game will continue to develop; he shot only 41.6 percent from the field.
Newcomer Frank Bertz is expected to provide a spark as a 3-point specialist. Last season, he shot 47.6 percent from beyond the arc at East Los Angeles College.
For UCF, it’s essentially now or never. With Taylor and Fall being seniors — and questions surrounding several of the other top programs in the AAC — this could be UCF’s best opportunity to break through with its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005.
UCF checks all the boxes: leadership, talent and experience. Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together — and staying healthy.
Postseason Prediction: Two & Out
AAC Prediction: 1st