|Despite ineligibility for postseason play, Donnie Jones and UCF are having a solid season. (US Presswire)|
ORLANDO -- Donnie Jones wasn't quite certain what to expect.
The NCAA tournament was out of the equation, and Central Florida's head coach knew it wasn't going to be easy to motivate a bunch of college kids without the Big Dance as the ultimate goal.
"Our goal was the win the conference," Jones said. "The conference title is our NCAA tournament."
Central Florida is within striking distance. The Knights are 17-6 overall and 7-2 in Conference USA play with a date on Wednesday night at first-place Memphis (20-3, 9-0), which has won 14 consecutive contests. Jones has done it despite losing three key players that were slated to be in uniform this season. Marcus Jordan decided to take a year off and is just taking classes at UCF. C.J. Reed, the projected starter at the point, decided to follow his father to Georgia Southern and is averaging 13 points per game. Big man Josh Crittle also left after the tournament ban was announced and is putting up 10.4 points and 5.5 boards at Illinois-Chicago.
Jones has 10 scholarship players -- including five newcomers -- and he's on the verge of putting up his fourth consecutive 20-win campaign (including his final season at Marshall). UCF has won six of its last seven and has gotten off to its best start in C-USA since joining the league in 2005.
"The guys have been phenomenal," Jones said. "They play hard and have bought into the team concept."
It starts with the team's lone senior, big man Keith Clanton, who is happy at UCF despite heavy interest from Kentucky and Florida State. The 6-foot-9 Clanton is a candidate for C-USA Player of the Year, along with junior guard Isaiah Sykes. The duo combines to average nearly 32 points and more than 16 rebounds per contest. Oklahoma transfer Calvin Newell and former Virginia forward Tristan Spurlock are both also averaging in double-figures while Kasey Wilson is at nine points per contest.
"He had an opportunity to play for a program that had a chance to win a national championship," Jones said of Clanton. "That's difficult to pass up -- especially as a senior. Keith chose Central Florida three times -- out of high school, when I came here and then in the hardest time. How many kids choose a school three different times? I'm not sure anyone has."
Clanton has set the tone for this team with his unselfishness both on and off the court -- and his teammates have followed suit. Jones said the chemistry with this group has been outstanding, especially with not being eligible for the NCAA tourney.
"There's no question it starts with him," Jones said of his senior. "He's going to go down as one of the greatest players ever to play at Central Florida."
Jones said his focus this season was making certain he and his coaching staff brought positive energy to the court each and every day in a season he called arguably the most important in the program's history. Remember, this is the final season for the Knights in Conference-USA. A year from now, UCF will be in the Big East -- and will lose only Clanton.
"We needed to get some momentum," Jones said.
Despite adversity, that's exactly what Jones and the Knights have done.