Each December, UCF has hosted a tournament during the last days of December that it has dominated most years since its inception in 2004. There have been a few missteps such as losing to Birmingham Southern in 2005 or losing handily to Jacksonville in 2009, but this has historically been a way for the Knights to pick up two more wins before entering conference play. The tournament this week is notable for two reasons: the return of an old rival and the return of a key cog to the offense.
The tournament tips off tomorrow night as the Knights welcome longtime foe Stetson into the UCF Arena. The schools have faced off 37 times over the years with UCF holding a 22 to 15 edge. Longtime UCF fans still consider Stetson as a rival despite the growth of the UCF program into bigger conferences and the fact UCF has won the last ten matchups between the two schools.
UCF and Stetson rivalry really heated up when they were both members of the Atlantic Sun Conference (formerly known as the Trans America Athletic Conference. The rivalry with Stetson, or $tet$on as the UCF fans refer to them, has always been a passionate one whether is was played at the Edmunds Center in DeLand, FL or either iteration of the UCF Arena in Orlando. The two facillities are just 37 miles apart from one another making it very easy for the fanbases to travel to each facility to support the teams. This rivalry has had two notable events throughout the years: the spawning of Kirks Jerks and Marcus Jordan garnering national attention on the ESPN Top Ten list.
Kirks Jerks began following a road game at Stetson while heckling former Hatters' coach Murray Arnold. In those days, a crowd of 1000 fans in the old UCF Arena would be considered huge, but the Jerks owned the area behind the visiting bench and took pride in their heckling and energizing the crowd. It was not long before section 107 became the hottest seat in the house. The story is best told by its founders, Biggie and Paul
The group now lives in infamy after the dismissal of Coach Speraw but lives on via a presence on Twitter. How seriously do they still take the rivalry with Stetson? Look at their latest update on Twitter
Last season, the two schools faced off in DeLand in a game the Knights won 85-58. The highlight of the night came on a play in which Stetson was attempting to inbound the ball underneath the UCF basket with the Knights applying a half-court press.
This time around, the game is in Orlando where the Knights have won five straight games against Stetson with the last game ending in a 73-60 win for UCF in the final season in the old UCF Arena. The last time the Hatters defeated the Knights in Orlando was back on January 17th, 2001 during conference play that season.
Should the Knights continue their dominance over the Hatters, they will take on the winner of James Madison and Rhode Island. That game will be marked by the return of senior point guard A.J. Rompza who has been sitting out a suspension related to the allegations by the NCAA in November. He has been the team's starting point guard for nearly his entire career at UCF and is known for his excellent ball-handling and pressuring the ball all over the court which helped him lead the team last season in steals. The Knights could use his outside shooting as well as he was third on the team last season in 3-pt attempts including this game-winning gem last season against Southern Mississippi.
The Knights come into this game following the loss to Lousiana-Lafayette but have yet to lose back to back games this season. In order to do that, the Knights must improve their efforts at the free throw line. UCF is 23rd in the nation in free throw attempts but is just 314th out of 345 teams in free throw percentage so far this season.
Stetson enters the contest with a RPI of 250 and a strength of schedule of 176. They are 4-6 so far but have lost three straight games to Indiana, South Carolina Upstate, and Charleston Southern. Former UCF guard Amara Thompson is now on the Hatters roster that has seen a lot of turnover since last season. Stetson's top two scorers are guards Aaron Graham and Chris Perez who are the only Hatters averaging at least ten points a game on the roster.
Tip off tomorrow night is set for 7pm and the championship game is also at 7pm on Friday with the consolation game to be played afterwards.