ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Johnny Dawkins's arrived at UCF with a promise to turn the men's basketball program around.
No one expected him to be able to do it in a year. With just seven scholarship players, the realistic outlook was a rebuilding year, with hopes of a glimpse of what might be coming.
But instead of planning for Year 2 under Dawkins, the Knights are headed to Madison Square Garden and the NIT Final Four with a legitimate chance of winning the program's first national championship.
''Our belief has been in these players from Day 1,'' said Dawkins, a former national player of the year and All-American at Duke and NBA player. ''I think as we started to play and started to gain some momentum I think they started realizing what we can accomplish and they kept working. And we put ourselves in position to be very competitive this season so I'm just excited.''
Much of the credit for UCF being in this position should go to Dawkins , who has re-energized a program that was trending downward in Donnie Jones' last years. It wasn't instantaneous, but CFE Arena slowly became a home-court advantage this season as crowds and enthusiasm grew with the team's success.
An improving 7-foot-6 anchor, an outstanding playmaker at point guard, a five-game winning to end the regular season, 24 victories and a fortuitous scheduling conflict has helped speed up Dawkins' rebuilding timetable. The Knights' stunning postseason run continues Tuesday night in New York against TCU.
''I think it's huge for the program, we are way ahead of schedule,'' said UCF athletic director Danny White, who hired Dawkins last March. ''We are extremely fortunate to have a coach the caliber of Johnny Dawkins leading our men's basketball program.''
The Knights have put in the work this year, but have also had the ball bounce their way.
A record-crowd of 10,011 fans packed a sold out CFE Arena - a first for the building - in a matchup with Illinois that should have been road game for the Knights. But Illinois had a scheduling conflict at their building so the game was played in Orlando.
The energy from the home crowd helped the fourth-seeded Knights (24-11) defeat No.2 seed Illinois 68-58. Fans, especially the rowdy student section, had been in a frenzy all night and stormed the court after the win.
''It was rocking against Illinois,'' White said. ''It was awesome to see it that way.''
It's a scene UCF had hoped for when they hired Dawkins.
He led Stanford to two NIT titles before being let go last year, then took over a UCF program that had gone 12-18 and 6-12 in the American Athletic Conference in Jones' last year. The 24 wins so far this season is the second most for the program in its Division I era and the 11 victories in AAC play are the most the Knights have had since joining the league.
It was far from a given that Dawkins would have the type of immediate success he has had because he has just seven scholarship players on the roster due to transfers and injuries. But that seven formed a strong nucleus that includes standout sophomore point guard B.J. Taylor, 7-foot-6 sophomore post Tacko Fall , junior guard A.J. Davis and swingman Matt Williams - a senior who considered transferring to Wake Forest after Jones was fired last March.
They've all bought into Dawkins' approach, the toughness and discipline he has instilled.
''Since the spring and whole summer, he has instilled that kind of toughness and perseverance in games where we've gotten down by 18 like we did against Illinois State,'' Taylor said. We knew we could come back because of the toughness and all of the things we've been through with coach.''
Dawkins has been coach, friend and motivator in getting the core group of Knights to play as a unit.
''Johnny does a great job of instilling discipline in our program and accountability in our program and our players love and respect him. You can see that there is a strong relationship there,'' White said. ''It's a difficult thing to manage and think he has done a masterful job at it.''
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