Central Florida is beginning to understand what it means to be a ranked team. There was a time when Princeton thrived being an underdog against such opponents.
The 19th-ranked Golden Knights try to extend their best Division I start in school history Thursday night when they play a streaking Tigers team looking for a statement non-conference win in the final of the UCF Holiday Classic.
First-year coach Donnie Jones saw his team improve to 12-0 Wednesday with a 71-53 victory over Furman to reach its championship game. The Golden Knights had balanced scoring - Keith Clanton tallied 21 points and Marcus Jordan keyed a 44-point effort by the reserves by adding 15 - but Jones knows his team’s rapidly rising national profile means the Knights will have to play better.
“We can’t expect to stay the same and play at the same level every night now,” he said. “Teams are playing us at a different level every night and our guys have to get used to that. I thought we did a good job with it tonight, but it’s only going to get tougher for us.”
Jones’ run is the best start by a coach in his first season at a school since Butler’s Todd Lickliter opened 13-0 in 2001-02.
It is uncertain if Jordan, son of NBA superstar Michael Jordan, will come off the bench for a third straight game due to a sore ankle. Currently second on the team with 15.2 points per game, the sophomore guard currently is at “70 percent” according to Jones and “not able to get by guys the way he usually does.”
That leaves Clanton, leading the team with 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, likely to shoulder most of the offensive burden. Senior center and reserve Tim Herzog has averaged 8.2 points his last five games after entering the season with a career average of 1.0 points.
Princeton (10-3) enters on an eight-game winning streak with six of those victories coming either on the road or at neutral sites. The Tigers, who lost to No. 1 Duke and dropped their other two games by a combined three points, held off Northeastern 65-63 on Wednesday.
The preseason coaches’ pick to win the Ivy League, the Tigers nearly squandered a 16-point second-half lead before escaping when a driving layup by Joel Smith failed to fall at the buzzer. Kareem Maddox scored 19 points and Dan Mavraides added 13 for Princeton, which was the darling of college basketball during the 1990s under Pete Carril, whose patient offensive sets gave marquee opponents fits in tightly contested games.
Current coach Sydney Johnson - a starting guard on the Princeton team which upset then-defending champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament - has sped up an offense that now averages 71.7 points. However, the Tigers’ bid to end a 19-game losing streak to ranked opponents since beating then-No. 23 Wake Forest on Dec. 19, 1997, likely will hinge on their ability to stop the 6-foot-8 forward Clanton.
That task probably will be given to Maddox, who has thrived as a sixth man and is averaging 13.5 points and 6.2 rebounds. The 6-8 senior has averaged 21.8 points while shooting 67.4 percent his last four games.