Big 12 newcomer UCF eager to prove it can be competitive in one of nation's toughest leagues

UCF coach Johnny Dawkins addresses the media during the NCAA college Big 12 men's basketball media day Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The UCF Knights are new kids on the block in the Big 12, a league known for its growing basketball prowess.

Coach Johnny Dawkins and his players understand the transition from the American Athletic Conference to one of the nation's premier leagues will not be easy, especially after losing five of the team's top six scorers from last season, including NBA Top 10 draft pick Taylor Hendricks.

The Knights went 19-15 in their final season in the AAC and have not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2019.

They are eager to prove they can be competitive in the Big 12, which has four teams ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25.

“We have a saying at our university, in our program, you have to earn everything,” Dawkins said. “We want to earn everything we get going into a new conference. Our guys are excited about that and understand the task at hand.”

Still, it bothers the Knights that some college basketball experts project UCF to finish at or near the bottom of the conference standings.

Holdovers Darius Johnson and C.J. Walker are among the reasons the Knights expect to be better than that.

“It's Division I basketball, every team is good, everyone has talented players," Johnson said. "I think the difference that separates everyone is just the little things. I feel like once we buy in and embrace those little things and make sure we capitalize on those things, we'll be a great team.”


Johnson is the only returning player who played significant minutes last season. Walker is back after appearing in only four games last season because of injury.

Dawkins is counting on transfers such as Shemarri Allen and Jaylin Sellers to make a difference.

Allen is expected to play alongside Johnson in UCF's backcourt after averaging 17.0 points per game and getting named to the All-Summit League defensive team with Missouri-Kansas City last season. Sellers is a candidate for a starting job after averaging 13.5 points per game for Ball State last season.

The Knights are also hoping team chemistry developed during a trip to Italy this summer will pay dividends this winter.


While UCF is new to a Power 5 conference, the Knights are not complete strangers to facing top-notch opponents.

Fellow Big 12 newcomer Houston was one of the best teams in the country while playing as a member of the AAC. And, the Knights have a few players with experience playing in Power 5 conferences.

Walker transferred to UCF after a year with Oregon. Omar Payne is entering his final year of eligibility after stints with Florida and Illinois. Fifth-year senior forward Ibrahima Diallo played at Ohio State before transferring to UCF from San Jose State, and senior guard DeMarr Langford transferred to UCF from Boston College.


Defense typically has been a strong suit for teams coached by Dawkins. UCF was second in the AAC in scoring defense last season, yielding 65.5 points per game. The Knights will also need to be stingy to stay afloat in the Big 12.

Walker and Payne are excellent shot-blockers, and sophomore Thierno Sylla and Diallo provide additional size on the interior. Allen was an all-defensive team player in the Summit League last year and Johnson is considered an excellent defender, too.


UCF will not leave the state of Florida during the nonconference portion of its schedule. The slate includes a road date at No. 13 Miami on Nov. 10 and a home game against Ole Miss in December. The Knights' Big 12 opener is Jan. 6 at Kansas State. No. 1 Kansas visits Orlando on Jan. 10.

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