First-round play in the Conference-USA Tournament will tip off this afternoon when the ninth-seeded UCF Knights clash with the eighth-seeded East Carolina Pirates at the Don Haskins Center.
The winner of this matchup will move on to the quarterfinals where they will have to battle the top-seeded UAB Blazers.
It was definitely a crazy season for Donnie Jones’ squad, as the Knights reeled off 14 straight wins to start the year. However, the hot start quickly flamed out, as the team followed with eight consecutive losses, all of which came in league action. At 1-8 in conference play, the Knights could have let the season completely slip away, but instead the team won five of its last seven games, finishing strong entering this event.
As for the Pirates, they have never won a game in this tournament, losing all seven in postseason play. Consistency was the main culprit this season, as the Pirates finished 8-8 in conference play this year. However, the team was on a roll down the stretch, winning three straight before falling to UAB in the regular-season finale.
The Knights might hold an 11-4 edge over East Carolina in the all-time series, but the Pirates have won the last three meeting, including both matchups this year. East Carolina won 74-62 in Orlando, and followed that with a 68-61 decision in Greenville.
The Knights come into the tournament with a solid one-two punch in Marcus Jordan and Keith Clanton. Jordan, who is a sophomore, was selected to the All- Conference USA Second Team after leading the Knights with 15.9 ppg and a team- best 95 assists. Jordan shot 41.8 percent on the season and was outstanding from the foul line, connecting on 81.0 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe. Taking care of business in the paint for the Knights is Clanton, who posted 13.9 ppg, to go along with a team-best 8.2 rebounds per contest. Outside of Jordan and Clanton though there isn’t much depth on the roster, which is why the team is averaging just 69.4 ppg. Since the Knights are not overwhelming in the offensive department, the team will need to continue to rely on its defensive play, something UCF was good at this year, ranking third in the league, limiting the opposition to just 62.6 ppg.
The Pirates will need to find a way to improve drastically at the offensive end of the floor if they plan on grabbing their first victory in this event. East Carolina finished ninth in the conference in scoring, averaging a lackluster 68.2 ppg. Three players were able to produce at a double-figure level, but no one on the roster is more important than Jontae Sherrod. Sherrod, who was tabbed as an All-Conference USA Third Team member, led the Pirates with 15.6 ppg. He however, did not work alone, as Darrius Morrow and Jamar Abrams also made solid contributions. Morrow led the way on the year with 5.3 rebounds per contest and also posted 12.0 ppg. Abrams shot a solid 46.5 percent on the year, and 40.5 percent from behind the arc, proving he was the most dangerous shooter on the roster. However, the guard clearly did not shoot often because he comes into this event with just 10.3 ppg. Running the show for the Pirates has been Brock Young, who led the team with 123 assists, while chipping in 9.9 ppg.
The outcome of this matchup depends on what UCF squad shows up. Will it be the team that started 14-0, or the squad that began league play 1-8? Considering UCF turned things around down the stretch, it will likely be the former, not a good sign for East Carolina.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: UCF 70, East Carolina 65