After defeating the UConn Huskies on the road for the first time in program history, the UCF Knights men’s basketball team returns to the court on Sunday against the East Carolina Pirates.
The Knights (12-2, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) host the Pirates (8-7, 1-2 AAC) that recently defeated Cincinnati — the reigning conference champion — and received high praise from Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway after losing to the Tigers on Thursday.
UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins said that he isn’t taking the Pirates lightly, despite what their conference and overall record shows.
“I think East Carolina has gotten better,” Dawkins said. “If you look at them from the beginning of the season till now, I see a lot of improvement and I think there’s more consistency in their play.”
Dawkins said that part of the reason for the up-and-down play was that ECU was missing sophomore guard Shawn Williams for the first five games of the season.
“Since [Williams] has been back and healthy, he’s gotten into rhythm and they're playing really well,” Dawkins said. “They’re a very good basketball team.”
Williams was named AAC rookie of the year last season averaging 12.4 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.
It’s not just Williams that the Knights are worrying about. Standout freshman forward Jayden Gardner has made an impact this season, averaging 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in the last 10 contests.
“[Jayden] Gardner is a tough player,” Dawkins said. “Very good competitor, undersized post man but can really score the basketball. The thing I like about him is that he plays so physical. [He's] probably one of the better freshman in our conference."
During practice this week, one thing the Knights worked on was rebounding. In their last game against UConn, the Knights were outrebounded by 14. They didn't have a single offensive rebound while UConn had 17. ECU ranks fourth in the conference when it comes to rebounding the basketball.
“We got to do better in that area and we will do better,” redshirt junior forward Aubrey Dawkins said. “We keep striving to work in the post and the offensive glass with a different mindset and attack a little harder and work to make a bunch of plays for ourselves.”
The Knights said they understand that when conference play comes around, anything can happen, no matter what a team’s record is.
“Anybody can beat anybody,” redshirt senior guard B.J. Taylor said. “So for us, we gotta come out every game locked in and know that every game is going to be a fight.”
The Knights will look to stay unbeaten in conference play when they host the Pirates Sunday at CFE Arena. Tipoff is set for 4 p.m.
Jason Beede contributed to this story.