Dec. 1, 2009
By John Denton
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With a roster full of mostly sophomores and freshmen, UCF men's basketball coach Kirk Speraw knew his Knights would likely have to go through some growing pains and learn the occasional lesson the hard way.
Fortunately for Speraw and the Knights, much of the team's learning curve has come after successes so far this season.
One such moment was last Saturday when UCF had to rally late and then hold on for dear life in a 76-72 defeat of Albany. At 5-1 with impressive victories against Auburn, UMass and Drake, the Knights have handled their early-season issues glowingly. Even enough so to impress the relentlessly driven Speraw.
``(Close games) aren't something you want to go through, but they are learning experiences for young teams,'' Speraw said. ``The urgency to get a stop and to execute offensively and get a basket, those are good things to go through. A lot of times you have to lose games to learn some of those tough lessons. We've been able to learn a lot of those things while still having success.''
UCF heads into Tuesday night's home game against Newberry a surprise to many. The Knights have been able to make up for whatever they may lack in experience with grit, toughness and dramatically improved depth. UCF has yet to enter Conference USA play, but it was picked for seventh in the conference this season. Those voters might want to take a recount after the way UCF has thrived early in the season.
Speraw isn't about to say this team is ahead of where he thought it would be because he holds the program to high standards. But he knows there's plenty to be proud of considering UCF's sterling record and strong play in its biggest games. After all, the Auburn victory was UCF's first-ever win against an SEC school, and the defeat of UMass came before the second-largest home crowd in school history.
`` Maybe we're ahead from a win-loss standpoint, but as far as performance, what we have to do and the things we have to take care of ... maybe not,'' said Speraw, who is in his 17th season at UCF. ``I was really concerned where we'd be defensively, but we've had some really good defensive games. Auburn and UMass were good games defensively. So we're probably ahead defensively where I thought we'd be.''
With eight freshmen, five sophomores and just one senior, UCF has the nation's second-youngest team. But there have been no allowances to the Knights' youth other than the extra practice time to teach the basics of the college game.
Sophomore point guard A.J. Rompza and standout shooting guard Isaac Sosa both have stressed repeatedly that youth will not be used as an excuse this season. And both sort of resent it when UCF's inexperience is mentioned. And that's just what Speraw likes hearing from his players.
``Our expectations are high no matter how old they are,'' he said. ``We're just holding them to our expectations. We're not going to use (youth) as an excuse, but the reality is we are what we are and we have to approach every day with that in mind. We can't jump over steps and if we skip steps it'll cost us later on. But we won't reduce our expectations because of the reality of who we are.''
UCF's willingness to play hard has allowed it to overcome any shortcomings so far. And unlike last season when Conference USA Player of the Year Jermaine Taylor dominated the ball, this UCF team shares the load. Two players, Sosa (13.7 ppg.) and the dramatically improved Dave Diakite (10.2 ppg.) average double figures in scoring, but five other players average at least 6.2 points a game.
Speraw said he likes this team's willingness to compete and its refusal to shy away from big expectations.
``With David, A.J. Rompza and Taylor Young you never question in game situations how hard they are going to compete, and you can throw Marcus (Jordan) into that defensively,'' he said. ``And P.J. (Gaynor) is bringing a lot of energy defensively and on the boards. So that effort is something we need to have and so far this team has been consistently bringing it.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears several times per week on UCFAthletics.com. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.