June 22, 2010

New coach Jones eyes big things for UCF

Donnie Jones considered it the toughest decision of his life.

Jones, then the coach at Marshall, left his home state behind when Conference USA rival UCF hired him away in a rare intra-conference move. He now will try to beat the players he used to coach.

Then again, if Jones' prediction comes true, perhaps UCF and Marshall won't remain conference foes for much longer.

"Within time, this is going to be a school people will be looking at when you have this expansion," Jones said of Orlando, Fla.-based UCF. "I think this program -- with the success they've had, the enrollment of the school and the commitment to facilities -- will definitely be considered for a move."

He made those comments before reports circulated last week that the Big East was considering UCF and Memphis for membership. A program that long has been labeled a sleeping giant finally is showing signs of restlessness.

Jones, 43, wastes no time going through the reasons he believes UCF is on the verge of a breakthrough.

He points to the 10,000-seat, on-campus arena that opened in the fall of 2007, complete with luxury suites and a state-of-the-art video board. He notes that UCF is the third-largest university in the United States. Jones, a former Billy Donovan assistant at Florida, also cites the wealth of prospects who come from central Florida each year.

"Obviously this school is one of the up-and-coming schools in the country," Jones said.

During his introductory news conference, Jones talked boldly of following the same path as Donovan, who left Marshall to build Florida into a program that reached the NCAA championship game in 2000 and won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and '07.

UCF has a long way to go before it can be compared to Florida, though the schools will play Dec. 1 in the first college game at the Amway Center, the new home of the NBA's Orlando Magic.

Struggling with the move
UCF earned the Atlantic Sun Conference's automatic bid into the NCAA tournament in 2004 and '05, but the Knights haven't returned to the postseason since moving to Conference USA in the 2005-06 season. Here's how UCF has fared in Conference USA.
2005-0614-157-7 (5th)
2006-0722-911-5 (2nd)
2007-0816-159-7 (T-4th)
2008-0917-147-9 (T-6th)
2009-1015-176-10 (9th)
The Knights made consecutive NCAA tournaments in 2004 and '05 by earning the Atlantic Sun's automatic bid, but they haven't returned since joining Conference USA. The most recognizable names currently on UCF's roster are Marcus Jordan and Illinois transfer Jeffrey Jordan, the sons of Michael Jordan. And they're known more for their famous father than for anything they've done on the court.

That hasn't stopped Jones -- who replaced Kirk Speraw as coach -- from referring to his Florida experience while discussing UCF's potential.

"When we talk about the potential here, it's a lot like it was at Florida," Jones said. "When we went there in the mid-'90s, they had been to a Final Four [in 1994] and a few tournaments, but we had to sell not where it had been but where we could get to. That's kind of our sell here."

Jones' knowledge of Florida talent could help him rebuild UCF quickly. Although Florida is better known as a football hotbed, 11 of the top 150 players in the 2010 recruiting class came from the Sunshine State. Texas was the only state with more players in the top 150. California, North Carolina and Virginia also had 11 each.

"Florida's got a lot of good talent," Jones said. "There are a lot of good colleges that recruit here, but there's enough for all of us, especially in this area. We want to make people feel good to come home.

"But we won't just recruit at home but nationally and internationally. There are direct flights from all over the world to Orlando."

Jones has plenty of other reasons for optimism. UCF returns all five starters from the team that went 15-17 last season. The Knights also add 7-foot center Tom Herzog -- a Michigan State transfer -- and three-star prospect Isaiah Sykes, a 6-foot-5 small forward from Detroit who signed with the Knights after Jones' arrival. UCF will get even more talent in the 2011-12 season when Jeffrey Jordan becomes eligible.

But the Knights won't take a step forward until they adjust to Jones' fast-paced tempo. Marshall led Conference USA and ranked 10th in the nation last season at 79.9 points per game. UCF was eighth in the 12-team Conference USA in scoring (66.7).

Jones' Marshall team also ranked 74th in the nation last season in "pace," or possessions per 40 minutes, college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy's website (www.kenpom.com) shows. UCF placed 260th in the same category.

"You have to sell it every day, how you're going to play," Jones said. "Conditioning's a part of it and recruiting guys who fit that way. We've got to do a good job of teaching the guys we have how we play, how to play a little faster than they're used to."

The Knights are looking forward to the change in tempo.

"A lot of guys are excited about the new style of play," said junior point guard A.J. Rompza, who indicated he played an up-tempo style at Chicago's Whitney Young High. "It's just a matter of getting used to it. Once you start something [new], it might be difficult at first, but after a couple of weeks, everybody got the hang of it. Everybody's trying to adapt to it and make sure everybody's on the same page."

It keeps getting bigger
UCF might not rank among the elite basketball programs just yet, but the school already is among the tops in the country in terms of overall enrollment. Here's a look at the universities with the top 10 overall enrollments as of the 2009 fall semester.
Arizona State55,552
Ohio State55,014
Texas A&M48,885
Michigan State47,100
Penn State43,998
Source: UCF sports information
UCF's players also have adjusted to have a former rival as their leader. Marshall won 81-75 at UCF sfter trailing by nine points at halftime last season. In the rematch at Marshall, UCF rallied from a 17-point deficit before falling 121-115 in a triple-overtime marathon in which five Knights fouled out.

Rompza believes adding a coach from within the conference should help because Jones already is familiar with the players on UCF's roster. And the players certainly appreciate what Jones accomplished at Marshall, which went 24-10 and reached the second round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament last season.

"You can tell he's a winner," Rompza said. "Obviously last year at Marshall, they had a great season. He wants to put that into us. He wants us all to be winners."

Jones' success at Marshall made it tough for him to leave. Jones, a native of Point Pleasant, W.Va., had helped make Marshall basketball relevant again during his three-season stint. He was 55-41 at Marshall and led the Thundering Herd to two winning records in three seasons. The Herd hadn't had a winning record in the six seasons before his arrival.

"It was the most difficult decision I've ever made," Jones said. "I love the people of Huntington. That was home for me."

UCF's potential led to Jones finding a new home. Perhaps his new school soon will find a new home of its own.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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