It turns out there were two free agency dramas simultaneously going on in Orlando this summer. While former Magic star Dwight Howard was being wooed by the brand-name Lakers, Central Florida’s Keith Clanton was being courted by some of college basketball’s biggest names: Kentucky, Florida State. So many contacted contacted a former high school coach of Clanton’s (whom he’d deputized to act as a filter) that everyone involved lost count. Clanton stayed, however, even given carte blanche from the NCAA to transfer and play immediately because of massive recruiting violations by the UCF basketball and football program that have cost the hardwood Knights any postseason play for this year. No Conference USA Tournament, and certainly no NCAA Tournament or the like.
Handed down July 31, the ban created the chance for Clanton, an Orlando native, to seek playing time elsewhere. Three other seniors given the opportunity left the team. Clanton averaged 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds as a junior and was Conference USA first team and all-defense first team and is the best returning player in the conference. Sticking around has its perks, of course: He’ll be a keystone in UCF’s anonymous season versus being an ancillary weapon in Lexington or Gainesville. He believes that attention still can get him to the NBA. Dime caught up with Clanton recently to talk about why he stayed and what there is to play for now.
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Dime: What was coach Donnie Jones’ first reaction to your staying?
Keith Clanton: He was real excited, just from his voice. I called him after going out to eat with my mom. He just told me that he was looking forward to the season.
Dime: How important is being close to home for you? Coming from Orlando Christian Prep, I read your mother (Gloria Leeks) can see all your games at UCF and how that has to be nice.
KC: It’s a factor to a certain extent. My mother would have traveled to the other games and I know if I want to make it to the next level I won’t be playing in front of my mom in every game.
Dime: Was this a decision you made with your mother, or friends, or did you do this by yourself at the end?
KC: My mom helped me but I came to to this myself. She didn’t want to pick the school, she said it wasn’t high school and I have to make the decision for me.
Dime: Were you upset with coach Jones or the other coaches at all for the penalties?
KC: It was sort of like a mad feeling but I feel like it just happened and it’s life. … I just feel like it’s something we have to deal with as a whole team. It happened, you can’t take it back now.
Dime: How involved was UCF in recruiting you from high school? Is this a way to stay loyal to a team that was after you early?
KC: I mean they weren’t the first school to offer me but they were at every game they were able to play after that. It was good they could show support and I had to do the same.
Dime: Where does your research tell you you could be in the NBA Draft?
KC: I feel like right now I was talking with my coaches and I’m a second round player and I think I can work my way up to the first round.
Dime: With your goal being getting to the NBA, is there a player you see yourself like there?
KC: I just want to be the best player out there, but I like the way David West from the Pacers plays. I have a lot of skill being real versatile, shooting inside and out.
Dime: You had Kentucky, Florida, Florida State and more recruiting you after being lightly considered out of high school. Was that flattering, or were you surprised the level of attention you got?
KC: I was surprised at that point to be truthful. … I felt like I could have played at Kentucky or anywhere in the country. I could have played anywhere with my talent, and they could see the talent in me.
Dime: Did you keep count with how many teams re-recruited you?
KC: I lost track. There were a lot of coachings calling my high school coaches, I don’t know every school that called him. They said there were too many to keep track.
Dime: I’ve read that some have called your decision a small beacon for good in college sports because of the loyalty, the rare player who sticks around. Has the reception to your answer been surprising?
KC: It’s good attention but at the same time I didn’t think it was the best decision for me to leave.
Dime: It sounds black-and-white now, but it couldn’t have been that easy, right?
KC: It was harder than I expected, especially saying to coach (Leonard) Hamilton at Florida State I wouldn’t be coming. It was hard but every coach told me to do what’s best for them and I feel like I did that.
Dime: What was reaction close to you about your decision to stay and turn down the bigger schools?
KC: I had some people think I was crazy and that I should have gone to a different school but all the scouts know where to find players and they can find them anywhere. They found the dude Kenneth Faried at Morehead State. If they can find him there, if you have the talent, they’ll find you.
Dime: With your other seniors Marcus Jordan, C.J. Reed and Josh Crittle all gone (Jordan left unrelated to sanctions and is still in school at UCF), what is this team like?
KC: I feel like it’s business as usual but now we’re going to come out harder and with a chip on our shoulder to prove we’re an NCAA tournament team but just that we can’t make it. We can still finish in the Top 25 and win all our games. That’s our plan.
Dime: Have you talked with Crittle, Reed or Jordan since they left the team (Reed and Crittle transferred, while Jordan stayed in school but left the team)?
KC: Yeah I talk to them both. They’re still good friends, what they did was best for them. I can’t blame them for that.
Dime: With no postseason, what is there to look forward to about this season?
KC: This makes us want to play harder now actually. We can still beat Florida, we still beat Miami, South Florida.
Dime: So who are some of those young players you’re expecting now to step into roles opened by Josh and Marcus’ departures?
KC: Isaiah Sykes I really like and nobody gives it to him. I also really like our freshmen Matt Williams and Daiquan Walker. They’re going to be ready to play and they’re just as good as Marcus. We have a lot of pieces no one really has seen yet. I feel like everybody is playing well and no one’s spot is safe, not even mine. Everyone has to go out and prove themselves. Everybody just has to come out and play practices like it’s a game. We have to show everyone just because we can’t play in the NCAA Tournament doesn’t mean we can’t win all our games.
Dime: This might be the one chance to say you want to average a certain number or talk all about your personal goals and no one would bat an eye. With no postseason, do you come into this with personal benchmarks you want for yourself?
KC: I don’t feel like a number’s there or nothing I want to get but I want to show every time I’m on the court I’m the best player on the court.
Should he have stayed at Central Florida or played somewhere else?
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