ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - A.J. Rompza got his first taste of stardom over the weekend. He was wearing a Central Florida sweater at an outlet mall when a clerk behind a watch counter gave the starting point guard a second look.
“He was like, ‘Oh, are you A.J. Rompza?”’ he said. “It’s pretty crazy right now.”
These days, the Knights are getting recognized everywhere.
In the latest milestone in a banner year for the athletics program, the UCF men’s basketball team cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history Monday, checking in at No. 24. The team was informed just before an afternoon practice, and emotions swirled all over the place.
“It’s starting to show that people are recognizing UCF not just for football, but also basketball,” Rompza said. “It’s great to actually have that honor to say we’re ranked.”
The timing couldn’t be better, either.
Big East presidents unanimously agreed to expand the number of football-playing schools from eight to 10 in early November. A few weeks later, TCU accepted an invitation to join the conference in all sports in 2012.
UCF, Houston and Villanova - a member in other sports besides football - are among potential targets to be the next program. And if it doesn’t happen for the Knights this time, it certainly won’t be for a lack of success from their top two sports.
UCF’s football team also earned its first ranking in the AP poll this season and won the Conference USA title. Now new basketball coach Donnie Jones has the Knights (10-0) off to their best start since moving up to Division I in 1984.
“We haven’t really put a lot of focus on the Big East. It’s a lot of perception,” Jones said. “But if you do what you should do, and you win, and your programs have success, opportunities will come your way.”
The university also has done its part.
The school has ballooned into the second-largest university in the country with more than 56,000 students, built new athletic facilities and upgraded old ones in recent years. The Knights still have had trouble stepping out of the shadows of the state’s traditional powers, and a mediocre basketball program had been considered one of the major stumbling blocks for any potential move to a BCS automatic-qualifying conference.
Maybe not anymore.
This season, the Knights already have beaten No. 20 Florida, Miami and South Florida and are favored in their last major nonconference game Wednesday at Massachusetts. Not bad for a team that was 15-17 last season, had uncertainty lingering after longtime coach Kirk Speraw was fired and has had injuries to several key players.
Jones, a former Florida assistant and protege of Gators coach Billy Donovan, was convinced that UCF had all the makings to be a winning program. So he stepped down as Marshall’s coach to come back to the Sunshine State.
Even his mentor has been impressed with UCF’s rapid rise under Jones.
“I’m really happy for him,” Donovan said. “And also I think the thing that’s probably gotten lost is he’s battled a lot of injuries. He’s had a lot of guys hurt and everything else. I think he’s in position to have a terrific year right now and I couldn’t be any more proud of him.”
The Knights have been getting 16 points a game from sophomore guard Marcus Jordan, son of Michael Jordan. Marcus’ older brother, Jeff, came to UCF over the summer from Illinois but has to sit out this season because of NCAA transfer rules.
The Knights’ winning streak could be in jeopardy, however, with Marcus Jordan nursing a sprained left ankle. He will be a game-time decision against Massachusetts.
And unlike the football team, which spent all of one week in the AP poll before a loss to Southern Miss, the Knights want to remain in the rankings for weeks to come.
“We don’t want to take it for granted,” Rompza said. “We don’t want to be a team that’s in the rankings for a week, and then you don’t see us for the rest of the season.”
UCF will be facing a UMass team that has dropped three straight since opening the season with seven wins. The Minutemen were routed 104-79 at home by Seton Hall in their last outing Dec. 11, as they got a game-high 26 points from Anthony Gurley but had only one other player score in double figures. The Pirates shot 60.0 percent from the field.