Johnny Dawkins doesn’t have to boast.
There is no need to emphasize the expectations.
UCF is healthy. And that means the Knights are a real threat to challenge Cincinnati for the American title and get in the NCAA tournament.
Few potential NCAA tournament teams were affected as much as UCF was by injuries last season. Aubrey Dawkins, Johnny’s son, didn’t play a game, missing the entire season after transferring from Michigan with a shoulder injury. B.J. Taylor played in only 16 games due to a foot injury. Tacko Fall, the 7-6 intimidating presence, played in only 16 due to a shoulder injury.
Dawkins, appearing on the latest NCAA.com podcast March Madness 365, said all three have been cleared to play. The only one with limitations, it seems, is Fall, who still hasn’t played with contact.
Missing three key parts last season, the Knights finished 19-13 and “could have easily been 13-19,’’ Dawkins said. “This team showed a lot of resiliency last year. They were willing to do whatever it took to give us a competitive opportunity every night and play competitive basketball and give us a chance to win, especially since we were shorthanded.’’
The Knights played only one game with both the 6-2 Taylor (17.5 points per game as a sophomore, 15.9 as a junior before he got hurt) and Fall (11.3 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks as a junior before he got hurt) on the court. Both could and should be all-AAC first-team players — or at least in the conversation. Taylor is one of the premier guards and Fall is as much a disrupter as there has been in the game recently.
Taylor has the potential to step back in as the team’s leading scorer. Dawkins, a 6-6 wing who averaged 6.5 points at Michigan as a sophomore, could take on that role as well. Fall is the anchor and rim protector inside. Add George Washington transfer Collin Smith (a big man who can spell Fall), the returnees who stepped up in the absence of Dawkins, Fall and Taylor like Dayon Griffin, Ceasar DeJesus, Terrell Allen, Chance McSpadden and Chad Brown, as well as newcomer Frank Bertz, a junior college shooter, and the Knights have the goods to be a serious threat to win the league.
The Knights beat Alabama on the road, got its first win over UConn at home, its first-ever in the AAC over SMU and its first win at Memphis last year. But for UCF to reach its potential, Fall has to stay on the court.
“Everything for us is through Tacko,’’ Dawkins said. “There isn’t a player like him. He’s so rare and special in today’s game. It’s not traditional now. He’s such a unique player and we have to utilize him.’’
What the Knights do defensively will revolve around Fall. Dawkins said that he sought guidance on how to deal with someone so huge by talking to the Houston Rockets since they had Yao Ming. Dawkins also leaned heavily on his own experiences after playing with Shawn Bradley and the late Manute Bol when he was with the Sixers. Dawkins said Fall can be somewhere in between Bol and Bradley. That means a still developing shot-blocker who hasn’t scratched the surface of his potential offensively.
Dawkins expanded on the podcast about his relationship with Fall and how easy it was to mesh when he took the job. He added coaching his son will be a joy, and he expects Aubrey to be a leader.
“He’s played in the postseason before and we expect him to bring his leadership to our program,’’ Dawkins said.
The Knights will get Alabama at home this season, go to Missouri, play Illinois State at home and play Cal State Fullerton and either Saint Joseph’s or Wake Forest in the Myrtle Beach Classic, with West Virginia and Western Kentucky on the other side of the tournament's bracket.
“I think they have an understanding of people speculating where we should be,’’ said Dawkins of the high expectations. “But we should be working on a championship level every day. Therefore, there should be no change from last year to this year.’’
Ah, but it is. UCF will be better. Should be better. And because they are healthy the Knights will be a major force in the AAC and a likely NCAA tournament team.