ORLANDO, Fla. – As a member of Conference USA, UCF coach Donnie Jones pretty much knew that without winning the conference championship a bid to the NCAA Tournament was a longshot at best.
The good news for the Knight as members of the new American Athletic Conference is that won't be an issue in a league that features defending national champion Louisville, 2011 national champion Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati.
The bad news is now with so many good teams to contend with, snaring one of those bids this season is different proposition altogether.
But coming off a 20-win season in which the Knights were ineligible for postseason consideration because of NCAA penalties that included a one-year tournament ban, just having that opportunity back is enough right now.
"That's one thing coach Jones told us when he was recruiting us was that we'd get to play against the best of the best and he hasn't been wrong in that," said senior forward Tristan Spurlock. "Any player of any caliber would want to come and play in this league...Everywhere you look is a tough game. And that's what you want as a player.
"You want every night to be able to be tough."
UCF returns four of its five starters from a year ago, but lost its leader and cog in the middle with the graduation of big man Keith Clanton. It's one of the main reasons the Knights were picked to finish just ninth out of 10 teams in the preseason American coaches' poll.
Senior and leading scorer Isaiah Sykes (16.8 points per game) will be called upon to pick up the slack, along with Spurlock and senior Calvin Newell, who both averaged 12.9 points per game.
The Knights also face a schedule that features 12 games against 2013 NCAA tournament teams and against 15 teams that won at least 20 games last season.
Senior guard Calvin Newell said regardless of expectations, the increased competition level and having the postseason possibility back on the table will naturally make the Knights play harder.
"Like anything in life, if you see a motivation and you see future, then you work harder," Newell said. "If you were working a job and you didn't get paid, you wouldn't work as hard. So basically we see a paycheck at the end of the season. So we're going to work to get that.
"So now we have a little edge and motivation we're working for that there's something that we can actually do."
Here are five things to watch for from the Knights this season:
SOPHOMORE QUARTET: The Knights should get an even bigger contribution from sophomores Walker, Matt Jones, Staphon Blair and Dylan Karell. Walker has the most experience, appearing in 31 games and starting 18, but none of them appeared in less than 20 games. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Williams missed five games and lost more than 20 pounds last season because of appendix surgery, but returned and has gained the weight back.
NEWELL AT PG: Newell, a natural scorer, was learning the point guard position under fire last year, but will be called upon to play it almost exclusively as a senior. His ability to be the pass-first point guard Jones wants him to be could determine a lot about the Knights' fate.
EARLY SEASON TESTS: The Knights' schedule doesn't have any lulls during the conference portion, but also starts off fast in the first month of the season with back-to-back games against 2013 NCAA teams Miami and Valparaiso.
NEW BIG MAN ON CAMPUS: Clanton's loss in the post can't be filled overnight, but junior college transfer Eugene McCrory is expected to earn minutes and contribute early. Listed at 6-8 like Clanton, he averaged 17.1 points and 6.5 rebounds for the College of Central Florida last year in leading it to a national championship.
OTHER NEWCOMERS: Along with McCrory, the Knights have three freshmen on their roster. Two of them — C Justin McBride and swingman Steven Haney — are Florida products. The third, G Brandon Goodwin, is from Georgia. McBride is listed at 6-10 and 310 pounds, but will likely need some conditioning work before he sees significant playing time.
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