Sept. 20, 2010
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - New UCF basketball coach Donnie Jones is on the court installing the basics of his system, demanding that players sprint on the fastbreak, telling guards to push the pace at a breakneck speed and instructing players to launch the first open shot available.
In Jones' system, players are given the freedom to play without the confines of too many rules and not be overburdened by tremendous amounts of structure. Jones is a highly detailed, thinking man's coach, but he's also smart enough to realize that players thrive when they are given some freedom and allowed to be creative on the basketball court.
Needless to say, Jones' style has been a breath of fresh air to many of UCF's players.
``When coach talks, people on the team are just filled with smiles,'' point guard A.J. Rompza gushed.
Added shooting guard Isaac Sosa: ``I'm probably the most excited that I have ever been about a basketball season.''
UCF began team drills last week, with the NCAA giving players two hours a week of supervised work on the court with coaches until preseason camp begins on Oct. 15. The Knights have been eager to get started learning under Jones, who took over for Kirk Speraw as UCF's head coach last April.
Jones, a former assistant at Florida under Billy Donovan and most recently a successful head coach at Marshall, wants the Knights to become a team that attacks in transition and encourages athletes to be complete basketball players instead of ones locked into set positions. Jones worked with two groupings of players last week on the fundamentals of the fastbreak, insisting that they run with a purpose and stay in attack mode.
``We're trying to teach fundamentals and skill work and the style we want to play. It's not as much plays right now as it is fundamentals and style,'' Jones said. ``It's a change for them and we're not where we need to be by any means, but guys are buying into it and understand the running that has to be involved. Spacing is very important with what we're doing. We have concepts that we play out of, but there's a fastbreak motion to it and guys are going to have the freedom to play out of it. We just need them to make the right plays and reads.''
The players read on Jones so far is that they like what they are hearing. Returning big men such as Keith Clanton and A.J. Tyler are more suited to a wide-open game where they can utilize their skills in space and shooting abilities and figure they will thrive in Jones' system. Rompza sounds like a point guard who has had the shackles taken off of him and he's ready to run. And naturally Sosa, a talented shooting guard, is eager to play in a system where it is demanded that he take all open shots or be pulled out of the game.
``The last two years we tried to push it, but people said it was a walk-it-up offense. Now, I'm in a daze almost. I'll be lying in the bed now thinking about how I'll finally be able to show people what I'm capable of,'' Rompza said. ``I almost don't have words for my excitement. You never want to be locked down into playing just one way and coach Jones has given us the freedom to show our skills.''
But as UCF's players have found out this summer, there's a big difference in wanting to play an up-tempo style and actually doing it. The fitness level needed to push the ball after every missed shot is intense and it's caused many Knights players to have to change their bodies. Jones demands that his players be in great shape, insisting that they ``stand tall'' in practice rather than grab their shorts while huffing and puffing.
Clanton, who made the Conference USA All-Freshman squad last season along with teammate Marcus Jordan, went to work on his physique during the summer and is noticeably changed. By becoming a regular in the weight room while working with strength and conditioning coach B.J. Faulk, Clanton dramatically trimmed his body fat ratio while also boosting his weight by 18 pounds.
``I've worked on my body a lot. I did a lot of push-ups and sit-ups and in the weight room I did a lot of stuff to get stronger and faster,'' Clanton said. ``I feel like I'm more athletic and I'm shooting the ball better. I think it will benefit me the most because it's a style where I can show all of my skills.''
Tyler, who had to play inside much of last season because of the Knights lack size along the frontline, will be given more freedom to play the high post and shoot jumpers this season. He will be awarded that freedom after UCF added transfers Tom Herzog (a 7-foot-1 center) and Dwight McCombs (a 6-9 power forward). Tyler, who has known Jones for years after he recruited his older brother to Florida, can't say enough good things about Jones' coaching style.
``He's a great motivational type of guy and he feeds off positive energy,'' Tyler said of Jones. ``He's about motivating you and he demands greatness and he does it in a respectful manner. He's the type of coach that you really want to play for and he gets the most out of his players.''
And Clanton said the combination of improved talent on the roster and Jones' aggressive attacking style should produce big results this season at UCF.
``We're getting way better every day,'' Clanton said. ``I have a lot of confidence in the team that we have here and I think we can be pretty good.''
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John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.