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Johnny Dawkins’ poor-shooting UCF prepares for visit from WVU

UCF basketball coach Johnny Dawkins’ message after every game this season, win or lose, has been that his team is learning and it has to respond to what it has learned with each succeeding challenge.

At Houston on Saturday, the Knights failed miserably at one part of the learning process but on another front they responded well. So it’s difficult to judge these Knights (11-6, 2-3 Big 12) as they head into another tough conference game Tuesday at 7 p.m. at home against a revitalized West Virginia squad.

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The Knights are coming off a split trip with a big win at Texas followed by a loss at then-No. 5 Houston that provided some good signs on the defensive end of the floor but some confusing dynamics on the offensive end.

Give Houston some credit, but it can’t be all because of Houston’s defense that the Knights made just seven field goals on Saturday. The Cougars do play a relentless brand of defense and it obviously had UCF frazzled all game. The shooting woes, however, have been happening in nearly every game.

There are 351 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams, and UCF is struggling near the end of the list of worst-shooting teams in the nation, ranked No. 308 and shooting just 41.49%.

“Give Houston a lot of credit. They played a really good game, especially defensively, and I don’t think we responded to that,” Dawkins said. “We have to get better in those areas and we will.”

The Knights missed 37 of 44 shots at Houston, and it shouldn’t ever get worse than that this season. So Dawkins remains optimistic.

“How to play through the physicality — how to keep your composure in those situations — are things we have to learn and grow [from],” Dawkins said. “Houston, we know them from when we were in the American together, so we have a great deal of respect for their program. For us, it’s just all about trying to get better.”

It does, however, have to be concerning for Dawkins. Having a team that can’t shoot working through its first season in the Big 12 is going to be nothing but a struggle every time out unless his players learn to find the the center of the rim. It’s also not just the physical ability to get the ball in the hole, but with shooting woes it can also start to get into a player’s mind, and that makes everything that much worse.

“We’re learning as we go through this conference what we need to do to be successful, and I think the game versus Houston will serve us well as we move forward,” Dawkins said.

It would serve them quite well if they learn quickly. West Virginia (7-11, 2-3) is coming into Addition Financial Arena on a positive trajectory. The Mountaineers are coming off victories against Kansas and Texas, with a loss at Oklahoma in between, and their lineup has been bolstered by the addition of several players at the semester break who were not playing in November and December.

Interestingly, however, for the season West Virginia is a worse-shooting team than UCF, sitting at No. 310 at 41.45%. That Mountaineers team isn’t the same team UCF will see Tuesday.

Specifically, guard RaeQuan Battle looks to have gained his confidence and established himself as a legitimate scoring and rebounding threat for the Mountaineers. He’s averaging almost 20 points a game and pulling down nearly 10 rebounds. In addition, WVU could regain the services of injured 6-foot-11 center Jesse Edwards, who broke his wrist Dec. 16.

“They’re playing some of their best basketball now when it counts the most, and that’s what you want to do as a program,” Dawkins said. “It’s not where you are in November. It’s where you are in February and March, They’re starting to get healthy. They’re starting to get a feel for each other and they’re playing well.”

UCF continues to play well defensively, having held a high-flying Houston team to a season-low 57 points on Saturday. That’s what the Knights will have to rely upon, because they cannot depend on their shooting.

“We have to respond, and that’s been our motto all season long,” Dawkins said.

Dawkins also responded to Texas coach Rodney Terry calling UCF players “classless” for flashing the horns-down sign following their defeat of the Longhorns in Austin. Terry apologized publicly Sunday.

“I understand emotions can run hot in those situations and we’re human beings,” Dawkins said. “I know Coach Terry … we’re human beings. I did read somewhere that he did apologize publicly for it and that says a lot … and we move forward.”

Chris Hays covers high school and college football, as well as college football recruiting. He can be found on X @OS-ChrisHays and on Instagram @OS_ChrisHays. He can be reached via email at chays@orlandosentinel.com.