Keith Clanton (US Presswire)
The one-year postseason ban the Knights received July 31 enabled Clanton and his fellow UCF seniors to transfer anywhere they wanted without having to sit out a year as is typically customary.
Kentucky expressed interest in Clanton via his high school coach. Ohio State, Florida State and numerous other high-profile programs did too. To the surprise of many in college basketball circles, however, Clanton spurned them all, announcing Saturday he intends to stay at UCF even though the Knights will not be eligible to compete in either the NCAA tournament or their conference tournament.
"UCF is where my heart was at," Clanton said. "At the end of the day, I felt like UCF was the best place for me. I felt like the coaching staff and the players, I can trust everybody. And then knowing what we have as a team still here, I still feel like we have a chance to accomplish a lot."
Keeping its leading returning scorer and rebounder was vital for a UCF program that has endured a very trying last few weeks.
The NCAA hammered UCF for various recruiting violations, handing down wide-ranging penalties that included the one-year postseason ban, a three-year show-cause penalty for coach Donnie Jones and reductions in scholarships and recruiting days. Three key seniors then left the program, with point guard C.J. Reed transferring to Georgia Southern, forward Josh Crittle leaving for Illinois-Chicago and shooting guard Marcus Jordan opting not to play at all this season.
Clanton admits it hurts losing a scorer of Jordan's caliber and the team's would-be starting point guard in Reed, but he understands their decisions.
"It was tough, but if they thought it was best for them, that's what they had to do," Clanton said. "I don't blame them for it. I support them in anything they do from now on and I still have communication with all of them."
Clanton admits it was tempting to follow his teammates out the door, especially because of the caliber of programs that showed interest. The Orlando native wasn't heavily recruited in high school, but that all changed after back-to-back seasons in which he averaged 14.2 and 14.5 points per game, dominated the glass and impacted the game defensively with his ability to block shots.
At Kentucky, the 6-foot-9 Clanton could have bolstered a young frontcourt and provided veteran leadership for a Wildcats team hoping to win back-to-back national titles. At Florida State, he could have been a key offensive weapon for a defensive-minded team that went to the Sweet 16 in 2011 and the Round of 32 last March.
"I want to play at the next level, so it was good to know schools like that want you and they see the talent in you," Clanton said. "Kentucky, that's probably the biggest basketball program in the country, so you're going to get all the exposure you can get. And Florida State, they went to the Sweet 16 [two years ago]. But sitting back and looking at everything, I just felt like UCF was still the best decision for me."
Staying loyal to his teammates and coaches was a factor in Clanton's decision, but he also is sincere when he says UCF is the best fit for him.
He feels comfortable at a campus only 15 minutes from his childhood home. He believes there's enough talent on the UCF roster to challenge Memphis for the regular-season title in Conference USA. And as the top returning player in the program, he sees the chance to showcase his skills next season and perhaps impress scouts enough to carve out a niche in the NBA.
Clanton admits it will be difficult watching from his couch next March when other teams participate in conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament, but he's comfortable with his decision.
"I feel like I'll be at peace because I already know it's reality for us," Clanton said. "It will be tough to watch, but it's the decision that I made. I'm not going to look backward. I'm just going to look forward."
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