UCF coach: New conference filled with opportunity

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP)  (AP)

F coach Donnie Jones isn't interested in dwelling on the past.
 

   He sees too much opportunity ahead for his basketball team to do that. 
 
   Jones and the Knights were supposed to be jumping up from Conference USA into college basketball's storied Big East Conference this year. 
 
   The reworked, new American Athletic Conference isn't what anyone expected, but in a league that includes defending national champion Louisville for one more season, chances to garner some national attention definitely still exist.
 
   "Incredible challenge one, but also incredible an opportunity, too," Knights coach Donnie Jones said Monday at the team's annual media day. "But I think our guys are excited about that opportunity with who we return...That'll be the biggest thing for us, trying to handle the competitive teams night in and night out."
 
   The Knights were 20-11 in their final season as members of C-USA last year, but were ineligible for postseason play due to the one-year tournament ban that is part of on-going NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations.
 
   The postseason is back on the table as they move into what is expected to be a multi-bid American league and have a schedule that includes a visit from Louisville, and non-conference home game against Florida State.
 
   Jones also has the confidence of the administration, which in June extended his current contract through 2018.
 
   Several Knights' victories from his first 20-win season at UCF in 2010-11 were officially vacated due to the off-court sanctions, but on the floor Jones has won at least 20 games in each of his first three years as coach. Since moving to Division I in 1984 no UCF coach has done it in four consecutive years.
 
   "It's always exciting to play against great programs to raise the bar to have a chance to see where we need to get to and where we're all striving to be," Jones said.
 
   The Knights have most of their core back. The one starter they did lose, though -- big man Keith Clanton -- will certainly affect them on both sides of the ball.
 
   The top candidate to fill that void will be versatile guard and returning leading scorer Isaiah Sykes.
 
   Sykes is coming off a campaign that saw him average 16 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game on the way to earning C-USA first team and all-defensive team honors.
 
   The senior entered his name for the NBA draft before pulling his name before the deadline. That flirtation over, Sykes said he is ready to put even more on his plate this season.
 
   "When I went to the Kevin Durant camp, I watched him and got to play him one-on-one and five-on-five," Sykes said. "One thing I took from him is that he uses his body and scored in different ways. But the thing he mainly did was he made sure his teammates were going hard and he made sure they were involved.
 
   "So that's the big thing I've been working on in practice, trying to make others just as good as I am."
 
   Along with Sykes UCF returns three other starters from a year ago, including former transfers Tristan Spurlock and Calvin Newell.
 
   Due to transfer rules Newell wasn't eligible for the first six games of the season before starting 24 of the final 25. He is expected to see time at both guard spots again this year.
 
   With no waiting period in his final season, Newell said he feels a lot freer as a player now and ready to embrace more of a leadership role.
 
   "All the warm-up games you usually get, I didn't get last year," Newell said. "I jumped in the fire, I was out of shape, (and) I was overweight from lifting weights all year. So I'm excited to start from Day 1 and show the country what I'm made of."