Basketball season is finally here. The Bulls, fresh off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years, and their first two Tournament wins in the history of the program, will re-open the Sun Dome on Saturday night against in-state (and future conference) foe UCF.
UCF, coming off of a 22-11 (10-6 Conference USA) campaign last season and a trip to the NIT, is hoping that their return to the court will help them move past a turbulent offseason. The program was hit with NCAA sanctions as part of a recruiting scandal, including a one-year postseason ban and recruiting penalties. (It also forced the resignation of former athletic director Keith Tribble, who was actively involved.) Guard Marcus Jordan, who averaged 13.7 points per game last season, left the program, along with center Josh Crittle and C.J. Reed. The Knights are left with an inexperienced bench and question marks in the backcourt, but they did keep senior forward Keith Clanton around (the Conference USA preseason player of the year), making them a tricky first opponent.
The 6'9", 250-pound Clanton averaged 14.5 points per game last season, along with 8.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He would be a force to contend with anyway, but with a lack of proven depth in the post for USF, Clanton could be the key to the game. Toarlyn Fitzpatrick and Victor Rudd will have to crash the boards and not allow Clanton to dominate inside, and they may need to use their fouls wisely and make Clanton's poor free throw shooting (just 58% last season) into a factor. Junior guard Isaiah Skyes (6'5", 215 lbs.) averaged 12.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season, and with Marcus Jordan gone from the backcourt, much of the scoring burden will go onto his shoulders. Fortunately the Bulls have several wing players to throw at him, including Martino Brock and JaVontae Hawkins.
With Crittle and power forward Dwight McCombs both gone (McCombs was essentially kicked off the team last year), UCF will look to some new players to contribute in the frontcourt alongside Clanton. Junior forward Tristan Spurlock (6'8" 230 lbs.) who averaged 7.2 points per game and 4.4 rebounds per game last season, and sophomore forward Kasey Wilson (6'7", 225 lbs.), will become go-to options on the front line for Coach Donnie Jones. The Knights will also look to a pair of freshmen forwards off the bench in Staphon Blair (6'9", 240 lbs.) and Dylan Karell (6'11", 225 lbs.). Despite being raw, their size inside will challenge the USF bigs.
Freshman point guard Daiquan Walker (6'2", 180 lbs.) will run the show for UCF early in the season. Top assist man A.J. Rompza is gone from last year's team, and Oklahoma transfer Calvin Newell won't be eligible until December, putting nearly all of the burden on Walker. (Rod Days may see some action as well, but until Newell is eligible it's Walker's job to lose.) As long as Anthony Collins is healthy enough to play at full speed, he should have a big matchup advantage over Walker on both ends of the court.
The Bulls and Knights will meet twice this season, and this first matchup will be a great opening test for the Bulls. With a big crowd expected in the Sun Dome, look for the Bulls to try and come out fast, dictate the pace of the game, get the crowd involved, and start the 2012-13 season out with a victory.