UCF coach Donnie Jones talks with Isaiah Sykes.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The first thing to know about this visiting Central Florida team is this: It has the reigning Conference USA player of the week.And it's not Keith Clanton.It is Isaiah Sykes, a 6-foot-5 junior guard who was given a marquee role in the Knights' offense this season. He has risen to the task, averaging 15.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and a league-leading 1.9 steals.He is performing even better in conference play, helping the Knights jump to a 5-1 start. He enters today's game against Marshall with four straight 20-point performances and is the only C-USA player in the top 10 in league play in points (17.0), rebounds (8.0) and assists (3.3).Not coincidentally, the Knights have won all four games."He has to be considered for player of the year, in my opinion, along with Clanton," said MU coach Tom Herrion. "His versatility, he's got the ball in his hands much more than ever. He plays one, two, three, he's shooting the ball well if not better. He makes plays for others, rebounds the ball, which he's always done."Sykes will lead the Knights into Cam Henderson Center for the matinee contest, which tips off at 2 p.m. The game will air live on WCHS, Channel 8 in Charleston-Huntington.This will be the third and almost certainly last return of former Herd coach and current Knights coach Donnie Jones, as UCF heads to the Big East after this season. The teams will have one more game, Feb. 20 in Orlando, Fla., and they cannot meet in the Conference USA tournament because UCF is serving a one-year postseason ban for NCAA infractions.That adds several intangible factors as the Herd (9-12, 2-4) tries to send Jones home a loser for the third time. The Henderson Center crowd, likely to be reduced by the frustration of a tough season, should be nonetheless revved up and the Knights (15-5 overall) may be playing in the "us vs. the world" mode.
"They're playing really well, period, whatever their reasons are. Give Donnie credit, under the circumstances," Herrion said. "But when you have a senior, a terrific player like [Clanton], who came back - remember, he was applauded for coming back for what we all want to call the right reasons. He's helped lead this group to this start."The 6-9, 250-pound Clanton was named the league's preseason player of the year and he's making a fair case with 16.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, plus 15 blocks. He ranks fifth, third and third in the league in those respective categories.He has struggled recently on offense, scoring just 20 points on 6-of-18 shooting over his last three games. He has mitigated that with 23 rebounds and 11 assists, though.Other top Knights include 6-8 junior Tristan Spurlock (10.6 points, 5.9 rebounds per game), 6-1 junior Calvin Newell (10.9 points) and 6-7 sophomore Kasey Wilson (10.6 points, league-best .551 3-point shooting).For Marshall, the subplot of Jones-recruited players facing their former coach has faded as only two such players, DeAndre Kane and Nigel Spikes, remain. For them and their teammates, the overriding theme of today is ending a three-game losing streak and getting the season turned around.But Kane will acknowledge this: The Marshall-UCF rivalry has been spicy.
"It's a great game," Kane said Friday. "Fans love it when Donnie Jones comes back here. The crowd's usually great, it's always a hard-fought game. We beat them here the last two times, they beat us there, so it should be a fun battle, Saturday at 2 o'clock."BRIEFLY: Marshall leads the all-time series 8-6, including a 6-1 mark in Huntington. Last year's game at the Henderson Center was a 65-64 squeaker, in doubt until Marcus Jordan's layup went short at the buzzer. ... D.D. Scarver is the only player in C-USA to make a 3-pointer in every game. He has 50, second in the league only to the 51 of East Carolina's Akeem Richardson. ... Marshall's shaky statistical tale of the tape: It's .414 field-goal percentage is well below opponents' .455; it is minus-1.7 in rebounding, minus-12 in turnovers and is shooting a horrific .525 from the free-throw line. Only Scarver (.800) can be considered respectable from the line in those six games. ... Jordan left the program after the NCAA sanctions were announced, though he reportedly remained at UCF for school.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.