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Donnie Jones, typical of the dedication that it takes to build a college hoops program, was up early and already working Monday morning just hours after his UCF basketball team had won over Houston 56-54 on Sunday on a buzzer beater by freshman guard B.J. Taylor.

It was the second straight American Athletic Conference win as the Knights move on to Thursday's game at Tulane. At this level, celebrations can only last a few minutes. Then you have to move on.

Conference realignments left the Knights in a part of the old Big East that includes defending national champion UConn and Cincinnati. Temple's program ranks among the all-time leaders in victories in college basketball history.

But that's just the beginning of the obstacles. The roughest came from those four letters everyone fears: NCAA.

A lot of times we hear the news about this program or that program getting a visit from college basketball's ruling body. We hear about sanctions without really thinking about it. But if you happen to be the coach of such a program, it's life altering. No. 1, you wonder if you'll still have a job in a few months. No. 2, you wonder if you'll ever get back to where you once were.

The NCAA has gotten its share of bad ink in recent years for some questionable decisions. Some programs seem to skate while others get the hammer.

Jones and UCF got the hammer.

When the decisions came down three years ago, Jones knew it wouldn't be easy. He'd produced three straight 20-win teams at UCF and felt like the foundation was being built.

Then the NCAA ruled on violations of third-party recruiting in both football and basketball. Jones had to attend seminars, miss games, sit out some recruiting periods. But perhaps most important: He lost six scholarships over three years.

UCF President John C. Hitt said Jones had "rather modest involvement . . . having to do mostly with the supervision of his assistants." He was given a contract extension, in fact, in the summer of 2013 that runs through 2018. But it didn't heal the damage left behind.

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To make matters worse, radical conference changes followed the NCAA ruling.

"It's been hard for kids to identify where they're going and who they are playing for. There's been so much change in the last three years," Jones said.

But on Monday morning, Jones was upbeat.

"The sun," he said, "is shining."

Fighting injuries, scholarship cuts, a rough change to a new league, Jones did the only thing anyone really could. He recruited like crazy.

While this year's team is still battling, Knights fans have a lot of reasons to be very excited. Top on the list is the 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall. Jones calls this class, overall, quite possibly the best in school history.

Next season, there will be a total of six new faces, if you want to count guard Matt Williams, one of the top 3-point shooters in the league a year ago, who is redshirting with a knee injury. Another huge addition next season should be Tennessee transfer A.J. Davis. He's the son of Antonio Davis, who played 13 years in the NBA with Indiana, Toronto, Chicago and New York.

Davis departed UT after one season when Cuonzo Martin bolted to take the head coach's job at Cal.

"Really talented," Jones said of Davis. "He's like [former Kentucky star] Tayshaun Prince. He can play multiple positions. He's a lefty, 6-foot-9, and comes from a pro family. He understands, he's got a great basketball IQ. This year has been really good for him. He's really grown offensively and he's played in the SEC and was a top player coming out of Georgia. So I'm excited about him. He's a great kid, he's been in practice for a year now and knows what we want to do in our system."

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Tacko Fall, a 7'6" recruit from Liberty Christian Preparatory Academy, iis creating a lot of buzz after committing to play baskerball for the University of Central Florida.. Vidoe by Craig Bailey. Posted Feb. 15, 2015.

Those three additions alone make UCF a completely different team. The Knights are 11-13 with five regular season games to go. The league tourney opens March 12. With postseason a long shot, the Knights can eagerly look ahead, though.

"Wait until next year" really is a slogan to be excited about. Meanwhile, the current team starts two freshmen and two sophomores so it will have so much more experience in 2015-16, as well.

"There's no question we've grown," Jones said. "I look at [this season] as a positive because we've really built a foundation to take the next step. The wins will take care of itself but you've got to build it the right way with the right kids. And I feel like we've got the right kids that are doing that right now. They are very coachable. We just don't have a lot of depth we have a lot of youth. And with that you have a lot of inconsistency some times. The depth is coming with the nice [recruiting] class.

"We want to build a program that's not going to be good for a year. We want it to be good for a long time. You're trying to get stability and I think now we know where we're at. I think we can build on that stability now."

So while UCF fights its way through another trying season, this looks to be the end of the line for what has been a rough road. Jones could bolt, like so many coaches seem to do after a program has issues, for where the sun is already shining brighter. The school could have ditched him, to make it look like it was cleaning house.

Instead, the coach and the school stuck together and have come through the clouds stronger and more excited than ever about the future. Give them both credit for seeing each other through the dark times.

This time next year, it could be paying off for all concerned. The sun, as Jones already sounds certain, does appear to be peeking back through the window.

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Contact Jones at djones@floridatoday.com or follow him on Twitter: @DaveJonesSports

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