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Winning at Kansas-killer UCF suddenly looks like a tall task for No. 18 Cougars

Central Florida fans storm the court after upsetting No. 3 Kansas on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Orlando, Fla. The high-flying Knights host No. 18 BYU Saturday afternoon.
Central Florida fans storm the court after upsetting No. 3 Kansas on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Orlando, Fla. The high-flying Knights host No. 18 BYU Saturday afternoon. | John Raoux, Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — A week ago, No. 18 BYU’s trip here to face UCF looked like a brief respite for the Cougars in their inaugural basketball season in the Big 12.

Clearly, that’s no longer the case.

“When you look at their roster, their online roster, everybody has some negotiable size. When you look at them on film, man, they look massive. I am talking about massive. They have incredible length. They play really, really hard.” — BYU coach Mark Pope on UCF

The Knights, picked to finish last in the league and having been pummeled by Kansas State 77-52 a few hours before BYU was upset 71-60 by Cincinnati, rose up and stunned No. 3 Kansas 65-60 on Wednesday night at Addition Financial Arena.

Suddenly, this one seems 10 times harder for the Cougars, who have yet to win a true road game this season.

“Top to bottom, it is just a really good league,” said BYU senior guard Spencer Johnson. “There are no (breaks). … What I have taken away personally is it is a lot of little things that add up to decide whether you win or lose these games. We just have to tap into these little things and make sure we are really locked into what we are doing.”

Tipoff is at 2 p.m. MST and the first-ever meeting between the Big 12 newcomers will be broadcast by ESPN+ with Drew Fellios and Mike O’Donnell on the call.

Baylor fans received free cupcakes from Waco’s Magnolia Market after downing the Cougars 81-72 on Tuesday because a Cougar — post player Fousseyni Traore — missed consecutive free throws in the second half. If BYU thought it was getting a cupcake on Saturday in the land of Mickey Mouse and friends, it better guess again.

The Knights (1-1, 10-4) are riding a wave of confidence and should be bolstered by another big crowd. A good portion of the 9,000 or so in attendance stormed the court when the final buzzer sounded Wednesday to celebrate the school’s best win in program history.

Its 68-63 win over No. 4 UConn in 2011 in the Battle of Atlantis in the Bahamas drops to second-best.

“We realize that we’ve played two Big 12 games and we have 16 more to go and they’re all going to be just like this,” UCF coach Johnny Dawkins told the Orlando Sentinel. “There are no nights off, every team is very, very good and we have to prepare the right way. If we don’t feel we belong, then we’re in the wrong conference.”

The contest figures to be one of those classic matchups between a high-scoring, 3-point-loving team (BYU) and a defensive-minded UCF squad that thrives on forcing turnovers and denying easy shots. The Knights are No. 11 in the country in blocked shots per game (5.7) and 13th in turnovers forced per game (16.8). They forced Kansas into 18 turnovers.

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“When you look at their roster, their online roster, everybody has some negotiable size. When you look at them on film, man, they look massive. I am talking about massive. They have incredible length. They play really, really hard,” BYU coach Mark Pope said of the Knights. “They kind of embrace the chaos of the game and try to create as much as they can on the defensive end, and then they play really free, offensively.

“And so, it is awesome. A big challenge.”

On paper, or online, for that matter, BYU doesn’t have an answer for UCF’s 7-foot fifth-year player, Ibrahima Diallo. He’s averaging 2.1 blocks per game and is coming off a sensational defensive performance against Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year Hunter Dickinson of Kansas.

Averaging 19.3 points, Dickinson managed only 12 vs. UCF.

Big 12 games are “a different beast for us in the sense that we have to do everything we can to make sure we are putting our best possible product on the floor every single night,” Pope said. “There is no place to get discouraged or lose confidence or lose focus or feel sorry for yourselves or anything like that, because you got another incredible road game Saturday.”

Cougars on the air

No. 18 BYU (0-2, 12-3)
at Central Florida (1-1, 10-4)
Saturday, 2 p.m. MST
Financial Arena, Orlando, Florida
TV: ESPN+
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

When the Big 12 schedule came out, the Cougars (0-2, 12-3) briefly considered flying from Waco to Orlando and spending a few days in sunny Florida — which has been mostly overcast this week — rather than return to snowy Utah, but decided against it.

“I thought we would get a couple days in Disney World. I thought we would go to the Epcot Center one day and then the safari (Animal Kingdom) the next,” Pope said in Provo on Wednesday, tongue in cheek. “But there is this pesky little thing called class. … It is really important for our guys to have a full day of class. So we are going to get back here every time we can.”

BYU is still searching for its first road win of the season, and 100th win for Pope. He’s 99-53 in his fifth season at BYU.

Central Florida guard Darius Johnson gets in front of Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. as they go after a loose ball Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Orlando, Fla. The Knights stunned the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks and play host to BYU on Saturday afternoon. | John Raoux, Associated Press
Central Florida guard Darius Johnson gets in front of Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. as they go after a loose ball Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Orlando, Fla. The Knights stunned the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks and play host to BYU on Saturday afternoon. | John Raoux, Associated Press