UAB won its league’s regular-season title handily, has matched a school-record for wins in a single season, and can set a school record for road wins with a victory Saturday afternoon in its finale at Florida Atlantic.
Such a résumé would get teams from high-level conferences a high seed in the NCAA Tournament and garner talk of a deep run in March.
But coach Jerod Haase is savvy enough to know his Blazers are operating in a one-bid league and that they need to win the Conference USA tourney to earn one of the 68 slots in the NCAA field.
“Maybe in a perfect world if enough teams lose and enough weird things happen and we win out and play in the finals that we get in, but that’s not what our mindset is,” Haase said after his team improved to 25-5 overall and 15-2 in C-USA play with Thursday night’s 77-60 victory at Florida International. “Our mindset is that it’s a one-bid league and we need to win the conference championship.”
The chances of that happening would appear to be good. Only one other team, Louisiana Tech based on its second-place finish and overall 23-7 record, figures to be a serious challenger, and though not played on its home court, the C-USA tourney March 8-12 is in the Blazers’ hometown of Birmingham in Legacy Arena in the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center complex.
“It’s a really big plus,” Haase said. “We play at noon at noon on Thursday so it’s going to be harder to draw a crowd for that one. Last year the atmosphere was great. The guys feel comfortable playing in Birmingham. The crowd is great. It is an advantage.”
The thing is, though they aren’t getting much respect outside their league, the Blazers could make some noise early in the NCAA tourney if they do get in. If they are a No. 15 seed as ESPN’s Joe Lunardi is projecting them, they may not be the usual easy out for a No. 2 seed.
The Blazers like to get up and down the floor and play a crisp game with lots of movement and quick passes in their half-court offense, and they have the depth to keep up the pressure on the defensive end. They have eight players who have appeared in all of their 30 games, and two others who have missed one each have 50 starts between them. Nine players are averaging at least 12 minutes an appearance.
“The goal would be ideally to wear teams down,” Haase said. “If you have depth, that’s a big positive. But the depth isn’t a positive if you have guys that are selfish and looking out for their own. So if you have a group that is really unselfish and bought in to the team concept, that’s why it works.”
And it’s working for UAB.
They have three players averaging in double figures for the season (sophomore forward Chris Cokley 13.3, senior guard Robert Brown 13.1, and sophomore forward William Lee 10.5) and two others (junior guard Dirk Williams 11.0 and sophomore guard Nick Norton 10.4) are averaging in double figures in league play.
The Blazers are shooting 48.6 percent from the field overall, 38.1 from three-point range, and 72.2 percent from the free throw line and are averaging 18.8 assists per game, which ranks third among Division I teams in the country. They are 24th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.46), and 65.4 percent of their baskets have come as the result of an assist.
Such unselfishness is something Haase gets from his coaching mentor, North Carolina’s Roy Williams. Haase played under Williams at Kansas in the mid-1990s and coached under him both with the Jayhawks and the Tar Heels. Haase talks and texts with Williams and the Carolina staff “every once in a while” and readily acknowledges Williams’ impact on his career.
“In terms of basketball, he’s an unbelievable mentor in every way,” said Haase, who is in his fourth season at UAB. “In a lot of ways he’s like a father figure to me. We’re really close and whether it’s a big decision in my life or a career move I certainly keep him involved and trust his opinion.”
Haase came into the 2015-16 season with high expectations for these Blazers and from Day One, he said, he talked with his players about “winning championships and getting to wear rings.”
But the season didn’t start that way. The Blazers lost three of their first six games – 75-74 at Auburn, and 72-58 to Illinois and 82-77 in overtime to Virginia Tech in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament in Florida – and that most certainly will work against them when it comes to potential NCAA seedings. Of those three, only 17-13 Tech has a winning record now. UAB currently ranks only 73rd in the RPI rankings, one of the tools the Selection Committee uses to fill out the bracket.
Probably the best non-conference win for the Blazers to hang their hats on is a 76-66 decision over a 24-5 Stephen F. Austin team in their final non-conference game of the regular season. The Blazers used that as a springboard for a seven-game winning streak to begin conference play.
“I think we’ve continued to improve the entire year,” Haase said. “A couple of games we lost there at the beginning of the year were one-point games where we had a shot to win it, so it wasn’t like we woeful at the start.
“And we’ve certainly had some close games throughout the season that we’ve won. But I do like to think after 30 games now that we’ve slowly gotten better and better.”
Haase is confident his team won’t be intimidated going up a higher-ranked opponent in the postseason.
“One of the traits of our team, I think our guys have a great deal of confidence” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you put the Lakers out there, our guys are going to believe they are going to win.
“Not that they will win, but there’s a great deal of confidence and maturity in the team. And experience. We’e beat some high level teams, big-name teams, in the past and we rely on that experience to hopefully help us.
“But we’ve got a lot of work to do between now and then.”