Jermaine Taylor (Mark Weber/AP)
The UCF Knights will play their most important basketball game in school history on Saturday evening as the Knights play host to the national runner-up Memphis Tigers. Although Memphis lost superstar point guard and top overall draft pick Derrick Rose, as well as Chris Douglas-Roberts, the team is still the class of the Conference USA.
“They may not be the number one ranked team in the country, but cripes, they’re probably in the top 10 or 12 in the country,” Knights head coach Kirk Speraw said in his postgame press conference Tuesday. “It’s all relative when you say they’re not as good, maybe they don’t have two lottery picks, but they may have the eighth pick and the 24th pick, they still got three or four NBA guys on the squad and I think two of them are first-rounders. One of them is certainly a lottery pick and the other may play his way into a lottery pick…They’re pretty doggone good. They’re playing great defense, they’re actually playing better defense than last year. Okay, maybe they don’t score (as much), they don’t have Chris Douglas-Roberts that everyone knows about, but they’re actually playing better defense this year than they did last year, so they might actually be a tougher team to beat than last year because they are playing much better on the defensive end.”
The Tigers are led in scoring by freshman guard Tyreke Evans, who averages 16.5 points per game and 3.9 assists per contest. Where the Tigers should have a significant advantage is in the front court, as the Knights will have to contend with both Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggert, two players who are destined for play at the next level. Dozier and Taggert are 6’9” and 6’10” respectively, and they combine to score 23.8 points per game and 15 rebounds.
Knights forward Tony Davis appeared to be un-phased by the height of his competition.
“I think we’re just going to play basketball,” Davis said.
The Knights have a player which every team will try to stop, in guard Jermaine Taylor. Taylor is the top scorer in Conference USA, as he averages 23.6 points per game, while shooting better than 50% from the field.
“He’s just playing with some good confidence, shooting with good confidence,” Speraw said of his star guard. “People that come out are going to see one of the best teams in the country, and some of the best players in the country, Jermaine being one of them.”
Taylor knows that this game is vitally important for the Knights as they begin conference play, if nothing else but to see where they are as a team.
“This is a big game, it’s Memphis, the fans are going to be here expecting us to play hard and that’s just what we’re going to do,” Taylor vowed. “We’re going to try to make a name for ourselves and go out and give it all we have.”
So how do the Knights match up? Memphis has a height advantage, and an advantage in terms of experience and talent and depth. Still, UCF has been improving with each passing week.
“We’re better than we were two or three weeks ago, and we’re not where I want them, but what do you expect when you have eight freshmen? We’re growing as a team, we’re improving as a team, I think you can see that. We’re not where we want to be and we’re not where we’re going to be. We’re still going to have some bumps in the road with this group and we know that every night in the league it’s going to be tremendously tough,” Speraw said as he evaluated his team.
How much of a role will the Knights inexperience play as they enter conference play? It’s hard to tell. UCF dropped a few games against some inferior opponents on the road, as they were defeated by Valparaiso and Morehead State. The team has appeared to have righted the ship and won five games in a row and seven out of eight, as they have a stellar 8-0 record at the UCF Arena.
“We talked about a four-game mini-season, and we went 4-0 in that season,” Speraw said. “That was a good accomplishment, we did a lot of good things, some things we didn’t do, so then again it’s a learning experience, it’s getting better tomorrow than we were today, that’s just the approach that we have. They’re doing a good job with that, now that we’re getting into the conference season we just have to step up to the challenges.”
The challenge on Saturday will be immense, as the Knights will try to make history and defeat the Conference USA powerhouse Memphis Tigers. Win or lose, coach Speraw and his team will find out exactly how good they are by about 7:30 p.m. Saturday.