Oct. 14, 2010
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF Athletics Director Keith Tribble has known for months that he made a dynamic hire for the future of the Knights' Men's Basketball program when he lured head coach Donnie Jones to Orlando back in the spring.
Confirmation of just how impressive Jones is as a coach and person away from basketball came Wednesday night as Tribble sat and watched the UCF-Marshall football game and a steady stream of Marshall supporters congratulated him on his hiring of Jones. And that's saying something considering that Jones was formerly Marshall's head coach and a native son in West Virginia.
``That just shows that the type of individual that his is and the effect that he had on the people there. A lot of people came up to me and told me that they wished Donnie well, they missed him and that he was a good man and a good coach. That's always good to hear,'' Tribble said.
``It's always tough in a conference when a coach goes from one school to another, but I think in this particular situation with Donnie's ties into Florida and the way we went about talking to Donnie that we all feel good about what happened.''
The Knights certainly feel good about having Jones on board, and with the official start of pre-season practice coming on Friday, the Knights are entering this season with a renewed sense of purpose and promise. The Knights have been working out informally for weeks, learning their new coach and building chemistry with the eight newcomers on the roster, and Jones can hardly wait to get started for real.
``From the team-building stuff that we've done with conditioning and a lot of running, I really think those guys have bought in to what we were trying to do,'' Jones said. ``We've got a good feel as a coaching staff of how guys can pick up things. But now the fun begins on Friday when we can coach continuously day-in and day-out.''
Thursday was Media Day for the men's and women's teams, allowing both squads to address their hopes for the season and show off their additions. The men open the season on Nov. 4 with a home exhibition game against Flagler College, while the women begin Nov. 7 at UCF Arena also against Flagler College.
Women's head coach Joi Williams is set to begin her fourth season at UCF, and for first time a major chunk of her team is composed of senior leaders. Five seniors - Chelsie Wiley, D'Nay Daniels, Angelica Mealing, Jelisa Caldwell and Leah Paige - have been fixtures in the program for three years and know that the expectations for the program are to win the Conference USA crown the way the Knights did in 2009.
``We're at a pretty good point already and I would expect that considering how many veterans that we have,'' said Williams, whose roster also includes four juniors. ``I'm proud of our seniors because of the leadership that they have shown over the summer and throughout the preseason. It's very nice to have seniors. They've been through a lot and it's been nice to watch them grow up and mature. Now, they have another opportunity to have another great season before they leave. And I'd say their sense of urgency is very high right now.''
Williams, an assistant at the University of Florida for 12 years before becoming UCF's head coach, is quite familiar with Jones and has been championing his cause for months. Jones worked with Billy Donovan at Florida as an assistant before leaving to become Marshall's head coach. Considering what she knows about Jones' work ethic, people skills and ability to recruit elite athletes, Williams thinks the men's team is headed for greatness under Jones.
``It's like family working together again,'' Williams said. ``I'm excited for him and what he's going to do with the men's program here and working together. And I'm excited that we're going to grow UCF basketball as one complete unit and not just the men's side and the women's side. Donnie is going to support me and I'm definitely going to support him too.''
Jones' first roster at UCF features a talented returning core of Keith Clanton, Marcus Jordan, A.J. Rompza, A.J. Tyler, Isaac Sosa, Taylor Young, David Diakite and P.J. Gaynor. Clanton, an Orlando native, and Jordan were Conference USA All-Freshmen picks last season. Jordan is joined on the squad this season by older brother Jeff, who will sit out the season after transferring from Illinois.
Clanton, a 6-foot-9 power forward, has bulked up to 245 pounds this season while reducing his body fat and is poised for a breakout season in Jones' wide-open offense. Clanton averaged 9.7 points and 6.8 rebounds last season, but will be allowed to play exclusively at power forward after having to play some center last season.
``I feel like this style is really going to show the skills that everybody on our team has,'' Clanton said. ``Coach is going to put us in positions to take advantage of mismatches. I know now that if I have a big man on me that I can go around him and if a little man is on me I can post up.''
UCF can afford to move Clanton to power forward after Jones aggressively went after frontline players in recruiting to shore up UCF's need for more size and rebounding. Enter Tom Herzog, a skilled 7-footer who transferred from Michigan State, and 245-pound banger Dwight McCombs. The two should share the minutes at center and give the Knights some comparable size inside against the likes of Memphis, Houston, UAB and UTEP.
Rompza, UCF's emotional leader on and off the floor, can hardly wait to get started running Jones' system because of the creative freedom that it allows. Rompza said he often catches himself daydreaming about this season because he feels the Knights can be one of Conference USA's surprise teams.
``I lose sleep sometime because I'm so excited right now,'' Rompza said with a smile. ``I'm just so exited for this team right now. Right now, I'm not worried one bit about my individual success. My main goal is winning and when we win everybody gets the praise. All 17 guys that we have want to win and have bought into this system.''
Tribble said one of the factors behind hiring Jones was the style of play that he demands from his players. Jones stresses that athletes be basketball players instead of being defined simply as guards, forwards or centers. He wants his team to steadily push the pace, take open shots and at times play pressure defense all over the floor.
Jones has been pleased with how this team has adjusted to change, and he feels that UCF has the talent base to make some noise in the conference this season.
``There's more skill here than I expected. And the basketball IQ is here more so than I originally thought and they have picked up things very quickly,'' Jones said. ``We have talent, even though we're not the most talented team in Conference USA. But this team has the chance if we can jell together to be a great team. How many wins that will translate into now, I just don't know yet, but I think we can be pretty good.''
John Denton writes for UCFathletics.com. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow John on Twitter at @JD_UCF.