Knights look to get to 2-0 vs. Howard tonight

by Andrew Kennedy

The UCF Knights will look to get to 2-0 to start the season tonight after a convincing 84-67 victory over Massachusetts in the season opener last Friday.

The Knights should have no trouble doing this since they play Howard, he is just one man who apparently likes the Buffalo Bills (evidence by his logo).

I had a hard time focusing on the game against UMass since Michael Jordan was at the game and I kept trying to make eye contact with him from afar (that is also why it took me so long to write my post-game thoughts/recap).

But I did notice a few things.

This team is better than expected and it has everything to do with the progression made by last year’s freshmen class and the talent on the incoming class.

A.J. Rompza, who I didn’t think would improve too much over his career at UCF, proved me wrong and changed my mind immediately. He is listed at 5’9” but is really like 5’6” but is quick enough that his small stature isn’t that much of a factor. With Jermaine Taylor gone he has taken on a bigger scoring role by knocking down threes and penetrating to the hole and finishing with a greater success rate than he showed last year. He’s a great defender who makes the rest of his teammates play harder with him.

The best thing that might have happened for UCF was the Under-20 FIBA Championships (I think that’s what it was called, I’m not looking it up) this past summer where Issac Sosa represented Puerto Rico. Sosa, who again I felt wouldn’t be that much of a different player this season, looks much stronger (and tanner) with the ball on offense and defending on defense and hasn’t lost a step in stroking the trey either (6-for-7 from deep vs. UMass and finished with 26 points).

Sosa experienced the same kind of success scoring early last season but his production dipped down when the team played against bigger, more physical guards, especially in conference. Sosa has modified his game slightly and it should make for more looks and scoring opportunities for the UCF offense this year. He has added the dimension of driving to the basket and has what has to be one of the best pump fakes in the conference now (not that it resembles or is even close to what Sam Young gave the country in his days at Pitt).

As much as the sophomores have come along, the success of the team will ultimately be determined by how well redshirt freshman Dave Diakite and freshman Keith Clanton play. They are the most talented players on the team and have the highest ceiling, making their development to be of vital importance for UCF.

They both looked good and showed signs in the opener, but head coach Kirk Speraw will need more from these two if this team is going to make a run in the conference.

Diakite, who looked somewhat robotic in the offense in the exhibition game against St. Leo’s, was much more active and aggressive versus UMass and would often put the ball on the floor to try and create his own shot as well as battle for position in the post to look for points that way.

Clanton was his usual cool self coming off the bench and giving UCF just what they needed. All he does is make good passes, surprise with how good his handle is in attacking the rim and not miss easy layups (something Kenrick Zondervan made famous at UCF the past four years).

He finished the game with nine points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes of action, the most time any UCF forward played against UMass.

And then there was the son of Michael, Marcus, who looked average but decent all at once (whatever that means, it is a perfect way to describe his performance). Maybe he was feeling nerves because his dad was in the stands or is still lingering from some injuries that apparently keep him from showing off the airness that runs through his blood, but nothing really is going to be expected from young Marcus except solid, strong defense and help handling the ball and knocking down open shots on offense.

The second biggest story of the night (besides Michael’s presence) had to be the performance by Kuba (I will never again type his full name out, too much work). If Bill Walton was announcing the game he would have compared the Polish Hammer to Hakeem Olajuwon in a second after Kuba banked home a turnaround jumper in the first half (and Walton would have been kidding because he is infinitely funnier than anyone in the world and not stupid you idiots who criticize basketball’s greatest announcer ever).

But seriously, Kuba looked in much better shape than last year and finished layups better than a year ago too. On defense, all he does is alter the opponents’ shots and as long as Clanton, Diakite or P.J. Gaynor is playing alongside him, UCF got the rebound (A.J. Tyler does not help in this department since he never boxes out, which is apparently why he didn’t cut it at Clemson).

However, Kuba cannot be relied upon to play down low alone because he cannot catch very well, hopefully he will continue to work at developing this extremely basic skill.

So the future for the young Knights looks bright and they definitely have a chance to contend in Conference-USA if they play this way all season long.

The Howard game should be an easy one tonight with the real test coming against Auburn this Friday in Daytona Beach, Fla.

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