Led by 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, UCF may take a giant step by making the NCAA Tournament

ORLANDO, Fla. -– When you think of this city, you likely do not think of high-level college basketball. You think of plenty of other things – Walt Disney World, certainly, and likely also Epcot and Universal and SeaWorld, and perhaps also the orange groves and the picture-perfect golf courses and Lake Eola and the crippling humidity – but you do not think of college basketball. 

You may even think of the University of Central Florida, which has the highest enrollment of any American university at nearly 65,000 students. But even then, you almost certainly do not think of the UCF Knights basketball team.

And this is for good reason. UCF has only played in four Division I NCAA Tournaments in the program's 48 years of existence, and has never won a game. The program was a Division II power for its first decade and a half, but let's be honest: Even the highest-level American sports fan couldn't tell you who won last season's NCAA Division II Tournament. (It was Northwest Missouri State. I told you so.)

But be prepared for this to be the season when that may change.

In Johnny Dawkins' second season at the helm, UCF is the dark horse of a powerful American Athletic Conference. Newcomer Wichita State projects to be a top-10 team nationally, and will be challenged at the top of the American by Mick Cronin's always-tough Cincinnati squad that's ranked 13th in the preseason USA Today coaches' poll. SMU will be a nationally relevant team, and UConn and Houston both have legit collegiate stars in Jalen Adams and Rob Gray respectively.

But here's my prediction: UCF, ranked No. 29 in CBS Sports' preseason rankings of all 351 teams in the nation, is a team that will push Wichita State and Cincinnati at the top of the American, will be ranked in the Top 25 at some point during the season, and will make the NCAA Tournament – comfortably.

"The talent is here – it's a matter of putting it into action," said junior point guard BJ Taylor, the team's leading scorer last season.

Taylor's an Orlando native, and the idea of his city being known for something more than Disney World makes him giggly. He bristled when I told him I only thought of Mickey Mouse when I thought of his city. (I told him he needn't worry; I live in Minneapolis, and when anyone thinks of my city, they just think of skin-blistering cold. He corrected me and said that, because of the Mall of America, Minneapolis is known for shopping malls. I bristled when he told me this.)

Anyway, my point is: UCF is gonna be good! Maybe even really good. The school's football team is currently undefeated and ranked 18th in the country. It would not be surprising if the basketball team gets a similar buzz around it in this, the most anticipated season in UCF basketball history.

Here's why: Last year's team only had seven scholarship players…and they made the semifinals of the NIT. They return a very talented junior point guard in Taylor, and they also return the tallest player in college basketball, the 7-foot-6, 295-pound junior Tacko Fall. Fall isn't just some big guy lumbering around the paint, taking up space, although he is definitely big and he definitely takes up space. Dawkins played nine years in the NBA, and one of his teammates was Manute Bol, the tallest player in the NBA and a naturally gifted defensive presence. Dawkins sees some Manute in Tacko, and not just comparing their size.

"He has such a presence – people are going to see you and are going to react," Dawkins said. "You don't have to worry about trying to overdo it and trying to block a lot of shots. A lot of times, your presence will change shots and alter shots, which is just as good as blocking them. Just using his presence to his advantage – Manute was the master of that. He didn't even jump for a lot of blocked shots. He'd just set you up."

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Tacko Fall is head and shoulders above his UCF teammates. USATSI

Fall is the top reason why UCF ranked second in the nation in defensive field-goal percentage, per KenPom.com, and overall had the nation's 18th-ranked defense. What Dawkins values in him most is that he keeps it simple and plays within himself.

Fall has only played basketball for five years. Growing up in Senegal, Fall loved soccer. You'd think someone with size-22 feet would not be nimble, but Fall's soccer background upends that thought. He thinks of his game like Rudy Gobert: You can make a living on defense, and you can refine your offense over time. He studies Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Shaq, Ralph Sampson, Yao Ming. Karl-Anthony Towns and DeAndre Jordan. But his key is to know his strengths, and that mentality may soon find him a spot in the NBA.

"I'm not a guy who should be out there shooting the threes, but I can dominate the paint," Fall said. "I've been working on my left hand, left hook, right hook, jump stop, knowing the angles, using my length."

But the main reason why I think UCF is going to make a huge leap this year toward the top of the American? A little thing called the "Gray Squad." The reason Dawkins' crew only had seven scholarship players last season is because six more scholarship players – five Division I transfers and one prep school transfer – were sitting out on a redshirt season. They were able to form a complete practice squad that the starters could scrimmage against. For the Gray Squad, the practices were their games, so they got after it. And iron sharpens iron.

And the sharpest individual on that Gray Squad was the coach's son, Michigan transfer Aubrey Dawkins.

Aubrey, a 6-6 redshirt junior, is an absurdly athletic wing player who is on NBA scouts' radars as a potential late-first round pick. (This is what happens when you shoot 44 percent on 3-pointers in two years in the Big Ten, and when your vertical jump is measured at "44-plus" – "plus" because the machine only measured to 44 inches.) Dawkins transferred when his dad took the UCF job. It's been a bonding experience. Dawkins retired from the NBA the year Aubrey was born, and Aubrey grew up in Durham around Coach K's Duke teams when his dad was an assistant there, idolizing guys like Shane Battier, Sheldon Williams and JJ Redick.

But he's never been with his dad for extended periods of time in the gym.

I asked Aubrey about why he transferred from a school like Michigan with its impressive basketball history to UCF, a school with little tradition.

Part of it was to play for his dad. Johnny Dawkins is one of the kindest, most decent people in college basketball. It's been a joy for Aubrey to see his dad do his work up close. It's also been a fresh start for a basketball career that felt like it was floundering at Michigan. But there's something more to it. Something about taking this school with no college basketball tradition, in this city with no college basketball tradition, and making a lasting imprint.

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UCF coach Johnny Dawkins has the Knights trending in the right direction. USATSI

"This is the perfect opportunity," he said. "It seemed like a great place to restart and recreate who I am as a player, my mindset. More the way I think about basketball. As I've gotten older, the less you start to care. When I was younger, I just wanted to do my role, fit in before you stand out. That's how I was. Now I realize you got it going. You can't hold yourself back. You gotta learn to let go. Be OK with the failure if it doesn't go right. But don't hold yourself back and try to take it slow, because this world doesn't celebrate guys who wait for it. You gotta make something happen. So this is my perfect time for me to go at it, go for it, be the player I want to be at a place where we can win big against good teams and hopefully make a tournament run."

As we spoke after practice, Kevin Norris, one of the UCF assistant coaches, was shooting hoops with his 8-year-old son, Kevin Norris III. It was easy to imagine Aubrey Dawkins, a dozen years ago at Cameron Indoor Stadium, doing the same thing with his dad. Playing for his father has been something special.

But as I watched this surprisingly talented team practicing, I imagined something else too: That this team could turn Orlando into a high-level college basketball city, for this season and perhaps longer.

It sounds fantastical. You know this place for Walt Disney World. But mark my words that come March, you may know this place for something else entirely: A nationally relevant basketball team.

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