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From the Other Side: Orlando Sentinal’s Iliana Limón

The Bluejays scored points in bunches Monday night against Davidson in what some might have considered a foul fest. However, from a fan perspective, the fast pace of the game was a lot of fun to watch. It seems the die hard Creighton fans can walk away from this season feeling confident about the growth of the team’s core players heading into the 2011-12 season.

Fortunately we get to do this all over again as Creighton now focuses on Central Florida, otherwise known as UCF, in the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational. The Knights like playing non-conference opponents as they are now undefeated against them this season (15-0). They, too, have had their ups and downs this season, especially during conference play where they struggled out of the gates.

To give us some insight on UCF, reporter Iliana Limón from the Orlando Sentinal gives us a look at what we should expect at the Qwest Center on Wednesday night.

White & Blue Review: UCF seems to have been dogged by injuries — center Tom Herzog had a wrist injury and a concussion, Marcus Jordan had a ankle injury and a sore back, AJ Tyler had a hip issue, Keith Clanton had a groin injury, David Diakite had a knee injury, AJ Rompza had a stress fracture in his foot…is the team back to some semblance of full strength?

Iliana Limón: The team is close to full strength, which has helped it perform well in the CBI. Pressing and more aggressive half-court defense wasn’t really possible when the Knights’ lineup was hit hard by injuries.

WBR: The Knights just missed getting into the NCAA Tournament and seem to be really on a roll. What has been the key to their success?

IL: UCF struggled in Conference USA play, losing eight consecutive games at a critical stretch that really put them out of NCAA Tournament contention. The losses coincided with a string of injuries at key positions. The Knights also faced teams with tougher defenses drawn up by coaches who were very familiar with UCF’s strengths and weaknesses. UCF generally played good defense down the stretch, but the team lacked steady offensive production and confidence once the losing streak picked up steam.

WBR: UCF has received some notoriety because Michael Jordan’s son Marcus is on the team. Does that create any type of distractions?

IL: The team seems to have adjusted to the attention. Florida is a pretty football-crazy state, so the Jordan name has brought more notoriety to a program that didn’t necessarily always get the attention it deserved in the past.

WBR: Who else on the Knights does Creighton need to be concerned about?

IL: Sophomore forward Keith Clanton typically gets off to a slow start in the first half, working to get his teammates more involved. However, in the second half he really shows his ability to take over games. He can score inside, knock down outside shots and passes well. I think it will be very interesting to see him face off with Doug McDermott.

WBR: What kind of weaknesses can Creighton exploit Wednesday night?

IL: Aggressive half-court defense and a loud home crowd could rattle UCF. The Knights prefer to push the tempo and score in transition whenever possible. Marcus Jordan is playing out of position a bit at point guard and he isn’t the strongest at distributing the ball when the natural flow of the offense is disrupted.

WBR: Doug McDermott was originally recruited by UCF. What could he have done for the Knights this season? If he had signed, would UCF have let him out of his Letter of Intent to go play at Creighton with his father?

IL: McDermott is a strong scoring threat with great passing ability who could probably help any team. His skills are similar to Clanton, so it’s hard to say where exactly he would have fit in with UCF. The biggest thing UCF was missing this season was a strong shooting guard who could create open looks for himself and his teammates.

UCF coach Donnie Jones talked with all players who signed with the Knights and discussed how they might fit into his system. He welcomed those who could potentially thrive in his program to stay, but he also promised to grant all requests from signees who wanted to be released from their letters of intent. He did not put any conditions on the release, allowing one UCF signee to transfer to another Conference USA school. Based on that experience, there’s no question in my mind McDermott would have been released if he did not want to attend UCF.

WBR: What is the general opinion of first-year coach Donnie Jones as his first season nears conclusion? Were fans and alumni upset when 17-year coach Kirk Speraw was not retained, despite leading the Knights to their only four NCAA Tournament trips?

IL: Fans seem to be pretty happy with Jones. It has been a rollercoaster ride for the fans, watching their team go from 13-0 in nonconference play and earn the first Top 25 ranking in school history to an eight-game losing streak in Conference USA. The late surge in the CBI has certainly boosted morale. Jones also has amassed a strong recruiting class, including a commitment from four-star Indianapolis center Michael Chandler. He also has three Division I transfers sitting out this year who will be eligible to play next season. Fans are eager to see what he can do with the type of players he targeted on the team.

There was a core group of fans who supported Speraw and were very upset to see him go. A lot of those fans were die-hards who would stand by the program regardless of who was coaching the team. Many of them were won over by Jones’ early success this season and recognize there is a lot of potential for success in the future. They will always respect Speraw for building UCF basketball into a competitive Division I program, but they are happy to have Jones leading the team.

WBR: UCF is now 15-0 in non-conference games this season including Florida, Miami and Princeton and appear to thrive on outside competition. What happened when it came to Conference USA play and losing eight in a row early? What changed from non-conference to conference season?

IL: A combination of injuries and facing teams that had a much better sense of UCF’s weaknesses. Some of the things that really caught opponents off guard were no longer effective. Once the losing streak started, it was tough to stop. The last few games in the streak were really close, including a loss to NCAA Tournament team Memphis on a last-second shot.

WBR: On a lot of publications regarding Central Florida, they seem to be referred to as UCF rather than Central Florida. Is that a marketing thing? What do they prefer to be referred to as?

IL: A few years ago, UCF launched a marketing campaign with the hopes of enhancing its brand status and recognition. The school asks to either be referred to as the University of Central Florida or UCF.

WBR: In CBI play, home teams are 11-1. Would the CBI be better off being held on neutral courts or is giving one team a home court advantage okay? Is UCF upset that they aren’t hosting this game?

IL: I think the CBI has to have home-court advantage to draw strong crowds for the tournament. I don’t think there is a strong enough following for the tournament to host neutral court games. UCF would have preferred to host its game Wednesday. Along with losing that home fan support, UCF had to take a commercial flight, with at least one stop, to Omaha late Tuesday afternoon. However, I have not heard a lot of grousing about the CBI’s decision. UCF has been more focused on preparing for a tough game.

WBR: What is your final prediction? What does UCF have to do in order to get a win in Omaha and advance to the CBI finals?

IL: Creighton is tough and has a considerable home-court advantage. I think the Bluejays will probably win this game. In order to win, UCF has to play strong defense, knock down its outside shots and get a strong scoring contribution from its bench.

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