ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) First-year UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said when he arrived on campus that he loved to compete and teach.
His Knights might be learning a tough lesson about competition.
With five games left, the UCF's postseason possibilities appear bleak following a late-season slide. It's one of those teaching moments for Dawkins, who is pumping optimism into his players as they get ready for the final stretch.
''We still have a lot of play for,'' said Dawkins, whose team is 15-10 and 6-7 in the American Athletic Conference heading into Tuesday's home game against Tulsa. ''Our message has been pretty consistent. We still have a lot to play for, we still have a lot of opportunities to still make a run in our conference and finish as high up as we possibly can.''
An NCAA Tournament big likely requires winning the AAC Tournament. But if the Knights can finish the regular season strong and have a good run in the conference tournament next month, an NIT invite isn't out of the question. The chance to keep playing and continue to grow as a program is the ultimate goal for a Knights team looking to become a major player on the college basketball scene, like its coach.
The Knights have won just one of their last seven games, and it doesn't get any easier with home games coming up against Tulsa and then No.18 Cincinnati on Feb. 26. But they feel if they can string together some wins that they can take some momentum into the conference tournament.
''We can still finish up the season strong,'' said senior forward Nick Banyard. ''And when it comes to conference tournaments, the people who end up winning it are the people with the best rhythm going into the tournament. So we can still win these last five games, go into the tournament and make some noise.''
Earlier in the season the Knights, sparked by 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall, seemed poised to be one of the surprise teams in college basketball. They beat Mississippi State and then gave defending national champion Villanova all it could handle during the Gildan Charleston Classic in November.
UCF got off to a 7-1 start and was receiving Top 25 votes but it wasn't long before some of the challenges of the makeup of the team started to set in. Senior guard Matt Williams, sophomore guard B.J. Taylor and Fall are quality players, but with just seven scholarship players the Knights have found it difficult to stay in games due to their lack of depth.
They have played teams like SMU, Cincinnati and Memphis tough during this rough seven-game stretch but have not been able to put together a complete game. During Saturday's loss to UConn, the Knights led by seven early, fell behind by as many as 18 then battled back before coming up short in a 66-63 loss.
''We have to play better the whole game, 40 minutes,'' said Taylor, who leads the team in scoring at 16.9 points per game. ''I've been saying that the last couple of months. It's time and we have to have a sense of urgency moving forward.''
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