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No. 12 Houston, UCF clash with major AAC implications

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Life in the American Athletic Conference is about to get exceedingly difficult for third-place UCF, and the gauntlet begins when the Knights play host to No. 12 Houston on Thursday night.

The Knights come in at 16-4 overall and 6-2 in league play, but eight of their final 10 games come against the upper echelon of the AAC, including two each against conference co-leaders Cincinnati and Houston.

First up: The Cougars.

Houston brings a gaudy 21-1 record and a six-game winning streak into the contest. The Cougars are tied atop the AAC at 8-1 and have had a week off since a 73-66 win over Temple, avenging their only loss of the season.

The Knights have won three of their past four, but in addition to the Cougars and Bearcats, they also haven't played USF (tied for fifth AAC). Further, UCF has another game with Memphis (tied for fifth) -- the Knights lost the first contest -- and a road game remaining at Temple (fourth place).

If the Knights are to establish themselves as bona fide contenders in the AAC, they'll have to knock off the Cougars in a game that figures to be decided by defense and who wins the battle of the experienced backcourts.

UCF guards, senior B.J. Taylor and junior Aubrey Dawkins, will square off against Houston's backcourt, senior Corey Davis Jr. and junior Armoni Brooks.

Taylor enters eighth in scoring in the AAC at 16.9 points per game, followed by Dawkins at 11th (15.1). Davis (15.0) and Brooks (14.3) pace the Cougars, and are both top 15 in the AAC.

The Knights also boast a massive presence in the middle in the form of 7-foot-6 senior Tacko Fall, who is eighth in the country with 2.8 blocks per game and fifth in the AAC with 7.1 rebounds per game. Fall also averages 9.8 points per game.

The Cougars counter with a defense that is one of the nation's best.

Houston enters Thursday's game sixth in the country in scoring defense at 60.5 points per game, second in field goal percentage (36.3 percent) and perimeter defense, holding opponents to 26.2 percent from behind the 3-point line.

"We win with defense," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said last week. "The thing we hang our hat on -- and good teams have something they can hang their hat on -- is the way we defend and rebound."

UCF, however, boasts a scoring defense that's 25th in the country (63.9), and the Knights are 14th in the country in field-goal-percentage defense (39.3 percent).

Head coach Johnny Dawkins was especially pleased with his defense in the Knights' win over Connecticut last Thursday.

"I thought the first-half defense was some of the best first-half defense that we've played all year," Dawkins said after the game. "To hold them to 22 says a lot about our guys."

The Knights also take care of the ball on offense, having committed just 233 turnovers on the season, tied for 14th in the nation.

UCF is just 5-44 all-time against ranked opponents, but two of those five wins have come the past two seasons under Dawkins.

--Field Level Media

Updated February 7, 2019

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