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UCF men’s basketball hopes to keep composure against No. 3 Kansas

Kansas has long been synonymous with college basketball greatness.

As one of the hardwood’s blue-blood programs, the Jayhawks have won 11 Big 12 championships, appeared in 14 Final Fours and cut down the nets in four nationa championship games, most recently in 2022.

But UCF coach Johnny Dawkins doesn’t want his players to get too star-struck by the name on the front of the opponents’ jerseys when the Knights (9-4, 0-1 Big 12) host No. 3 Kansas (13-1, 1-0 Big 12) on Wednesday night at Addition Financial Arena (7 p.m., ESPN+).

“It’s important for our guys to understand we’re playing the players in front of us and not the players that played five or 10 years ago,” said Dawkins. “It’s very important to always stay in that moment and not get caught up in all the success that they’ve had in the past.”

It appears the players have gotten the message.

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“It’s not about the name on the front of the jersey. When we get out there, rankings don’t matter,” said senior guard DeMarr Langford Jr. “It’s me versus you, my matchup versus you and my team versus your team. We’re not worried about ranking, who they are, where they come from, or any of that.”

Added fifth-year senior forward Omar Payne: “One thing that’s helped me over the years is to treat every game like it’s the same. Any team is beatable and can win or lose, so we look at every game the same and come out with the same intensity that we need to win.”

This is the first meeting between the programs and the first time UCF will host a top 5 team since Houston a year ago. The Knights are 5-17 (23%) against ranked teams under Dawkins, with the last win coming against No. 15 Florida State in 2020.

They beat No. 6 Houston 69-64 in 2019 followed by a 58-55 victory over No. 19 Cincinnati.

UCF is coming off a 25-point loss at Kansas State on Saturday to open its first Big 12 season. The Wildcats led by as many as 35 points as the Knights, who set season-low marks in points (52) and field-goal percentage (34%), allowed Tylor Perry to score a season-high 25 points.

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“We have to execute a lot better and be more composed,” Dawkins said. “We didn’t get off to a big start and were fighting uphill the rest of the way.”

Kansas State opened with a 12-0 run and UCF couldn’t recover.

“We went in there and kind of got lost in the fight,” said Langford, who finished with 2 points in 12 minutes. “The first couple of buckets, the crowd got loud and we kind of just lost our composure.”

Payne, who had 4 points and 4 rebounds in 22 minutes, also credits the near sell-out crowd at Bramlage Coliseum for making things difficult for the Knights.

“We’ve got to come ready to play,” he said. “That’s the biggest part.”

Kansas, meanwhile, needed a basket by center Hunter Dickinson with 3.4 seconds left to beat TCU 83-81 on Saturday. It was the ninth consecutive win by the Jayhawks, who are making their first trip to Orlando.

Payne is no stranger to Dickinson after facing the All-American center at Michigan in 2021-22.

“He has a good touch, good feel for the game,” said Payne. “I played him before [when I was at] Illinois. So I have some experience with him, although he did get better as a player. We’ve got to play hard and I’ll be ready. We can’t let him get to his sweet spots and work.”

Dickinson (19.3 points per game) and teammate Kevin McCullar Jr. (20) are the top scorers in the Big 12, followed by UCF’s Jaylin Sellers (17.7). But Sellers is coming off his worst game with the Knights, scoring a season-low 8 points on 3-for-13 shooting in 28 minutes.

UCF hopes to benefit from a sold-out crowd that’s expected.

“Our crowd is going to be raucous,” Dawkins said. “It’s going to be a full house and we’re excited about that. When you’re a competitor and a player, you want to be in atmospheres like that.”

Email Matt Murschel at mmurschel@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on Twitter at @osmattmurschel.