UCF basketball excited to kick off season with 10 new players

When UCF men’s basketball takes the court against FIU on Monday night at Addition Financial Arena, the Knights will feature a remodeled roster with nearly a dozen new faces (ESPN+, 7 p.m.).

Gone are starters Taylor Hendricks (NBA), C.J. Kelly (graduation), Ithiel Horton (transfer) and Michael Durr (graduation), along with contributors Brandon Suggs (transfer), Jayhlon Young (transfer) and Lahat Thioune (transfer).

In their place are six transfers led by guard Shemarri Allen (UMKC), forward Omar Payne (Jacksonville), guard Jaylin Sellers (Ball State), forward Ibrahima Diallo (San Jose State), forward Marchelus Avery and guard DeMarr Langford Jr. (Boston College) along with freshmen guards Comeh Emuobor and Nils Machowski.

It’s a new start for the Knights, who are set to begin their first season in the Big 12.

“Everybody’s excited about this year,” said coach Johnny Dawkins. “I feel very grateful for that opportunity to lead a team into the Big 12.”

Monday’s meeting with the Panthers is the first game of a non-conference slate (12 games) that doesn’t have the Knights leaving Florida until January.

“We’re looking to go through each of those games to get better and keep trying to gain momentum as we head into conference play,” said Dawkins.

The Knights are favored against most of their non-conference opponents except Miami (Nov. 10), according to projections by Kenpom.com. A strong start is precisely what the team needs in the Big 12, where UCF has been tabbed to finish last.

Dawkins believes his team features good size and depth.

The Knights’ roster averages 6-foot-3, with the smallest player at 5-11 (Poohpha Warakulnukroh) and the tallest at 7-0 (Diallo). There are 10 players who are 6-5 or taller.

“We have guys on the frontline that are long and active,” added Dawkins. “Depth is in our numbers and we have some quality players that we’re confident can come into a game and contribute.”

The challenge for Dawkins, entering his eighth season at UCF, has been building chemistry with an almost entirely new roster. That’s why he took his team on an overseas tour of Italy, where the Knights competed against semi-professional teams. He’s also had them participate in several “secret” scrimmages against some in-state teams.

“We have really good chemistry and continuity,” said Dawkins. “When you have 10 new guys, that’s difficult to get this early. These guys get along well with one another and share the ball. It seems like they’re playing for each other out there.”

Two familiar faces still on the roster are starting guard Darius Johnson and forward C.J. Walker, who is back after missing most of last season with an injury.

“I like how fast we’ve gelled together,” said Walker. “With 10 new guys, it’s pretty hard to get everybody on track like we’re doing, but the Italy trip helped us learn about each other and being on the court every day has also helped in our favor.”

2023-24 season preview

2022-23 record: 19-15, 8-10 American Athletic Conference

Projected 2023-24 finish: 14th in Big 12

Season opener: vs. FIU, Monday, 7 p.m., Addition Financial Arena

Notable games: at Miami (Friday); Ole Miss (Dec. 10); at Kansas State (Jan.6); Kansas (Jan. 10); at Texas (Jan. 17); Baylor (Jan. 31); Oklahoma (Feb. 3); Cincinnati (Feb. 17); Iowa State (March 2).

Top returning players: Guard Darius Johnson is back for this third season, giving the Knights an experienced backcourt player to run their offense. The 6-foot-1 Johnson is the top returning scorer after averaging 10 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists per game last season. Forward C.J. Walker only played in four games last year before suffering a season-ending injury. He’s averaging 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds, including a season at Oregon (2019-20). Guard Shemarri Allen joins the roster after two seasons at UMKC, averaging 10.8 points while shooting close to 48% from the field. Jaylin Sellers also arrives as a transfer from Ball State, providing the Knights with a shooting threat. The 6-4 guard is a 45% shooter outside the 3-point line.

Others to watch: F Omar Payne (3.4 ppg., 2.8 rpg.); F Ibrahima Diallo (5.3 ppg., 5.3 rpg.); G DeMarr Langford Jr. (8.8 ppg., 4.0 rpg.); F Marchelus Avery (6.0 ppg., 3.4 rpg.);C Thierno Sylla (2.2 ppg., 1.1 rpg.); G Antwann Jones (3.9 ppg., 2.5 rpg).

3 keys to success

  • Developing chemistry: The roster significantly changed in the offseason, as 10 new players joined, including six transfers and four freshmen. To help the team bond and build chemistry, the players went on an overseas tour to Italy. Building continuity will be critical, especially with the move to the Big 12.

  • Staying healthy: Injuries forced UCF to use seven different starting lineups last season, with nine getting the starting nod. Preseason scrimmages have allowed Dawkins to tweak his lineup before the start of the season.

  • Being defensive: The Knights were among the best defensive teams in the AAC last season, allowing just 65.5 points per game while limiting teams to 42% shooting from the field and 31% from 3-point range. Where UCF will need to improve is rebounding on the defensive end, where the Knights scooped up just 23 per game.

Email Matt Murschel at mmurschel@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on Twitter at @osmattmurschel.

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