- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 14, 2014

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Take a quick scan down UCF’s men’s basketball roster, and the first reaction is to notice what’s missing.

Gone are Isaiah Sykes, Tristan Spurlock and Calvin Newell, who combined to average 38.3 points last year - 53 percent of UCF’s scoring output - for a team that finished ninth in the American Athletic Conference.

Those points won’t be all that easy to replace. But as the Knights’ young roster mingled with the media on Tuesday, there was an optimism that this squad could surprise people.

“I think our strength is our unity,” said forward Kasey Wilson, one of just two seniors on the roster. “This is probably the closest team I’ve ever been on. We’re really close - now.”

Said sophomore center Justin McBride: “Honestly, this is the closest I’ve felt to my teammates since I’ve been playing basketball. We have this family atmosphere going on right now and it’s amazing.”

That may be more of an indictment of last year’s squad, which endured a nine-game losing streak in January and February and eventually won just four AAC games. But if a fresh outlook is what the Knights need, it appears they’re off on the right foot.

“It’s my fifth year, but it is a new era,” coach Donnie Jones said. “We’re in a new league and this is pretty much a new team, so there are new challenges. Anytime you see teams go to a new league, they’re trying to figure out how to fit into the conference. . I’m excited with the kids we’ve got and where we’re headed.”

It won’t be easy in a league that boasts defending national champion Connecticut, along with mainstays Memphis and Cincinnati and up-and-coming SMU.

“The level of competition is crazy,” McBride said. “You don’t get nights off. You don’t get a slack game.”

At the same time, the added exposure for UCF creates possibilities that has Jones preaching about “changing the culture” at CFE Arena.

“There was a lot of guys that didn’t stick around that could have played” at this level, said guard B.J. Taylor, one of two Orlando freshmen expected to make an immediate impact. “I want to stay here in Orlando and do something special right here.”

Taylor, Florida’s Class 8A Player of the Year, averaged 34.5 points as a senior at Boone High. He’s joined by longtime AAU teammate Adonys Henriquez, a 6-6 wing player who was the Class 2A Player of the Year at Orlando Christian Prep.

“I think the guys coming in are obvious next-level players,” Jones said, “One of the most talented groups we’ve probably signed here.”

Wilson, UCF’s top returning scorer (9.6 average), is expected to step out of the shadows and take more of a scoring role. McBride, who struggled last year as he returned from ACL surgery, has lost 20 pounds from his 330-pound frame and should be able to play longer minutes.

Others who will be asked to take bigger roles this season are guards Matt Williams and Brandon Goodwin, along with forward Staphon Blair and Dylan Karell.

“You’re never going to completely replace a guy like” Sykes, Jones said, “but you can do it by committee. There are a lot of guys that have gotten better on this team who can help us.”

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