Unheralded UAB racking up wins, looking for NCAA tourney bid

UAB teams are used to fighting uphill battles for reasons beyond wins and losses.

While the athletic department is in the midst of rebuilding the football program, the Blazers basketball team has one of the best records in major college basketball and a 25-game home winning streak. Still, they'll likely have to win the Conference USA Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament via the automatic bid for a second straight season.

The Blazers aren't really grumbling about the win-or-else situation going into next week's tournament at the Legacy Arena in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, a few minutes from campus. They're not shying from the challenge either.

''I think that's the reality of the situation,'' UAB coach Jerod Haase said. ''We're under the assumption that we're going to have to win the conference tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament. That's just our approach going in.''

The Blazers (24-5, 14-2) have already clinched the C-USA regular season title with two games remaining, on the road against Florida International Thursday night and at Florida Atlantic on Saturday .

But UAB still was 75th in the NCAA's power ratings entering this week, indicating that Haase's team has plenty of work to do. They made a splash by upsetting third-seeded Iowa State in the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament.

The Blazers would still like to earn some more credit nationally.

''I don't know if disrespected is the word,'' said guard Robert Brown, the team's only senior. ''Definitely overlooked. But I think it's something that we'll be able to rectify once we get to the conference tournament and hopefully the NCAA Tournament.''

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl has taken notice. Auburn beat UAB 75-74 in the season opener, and Pearl thinks the Blazers are part of an upswing in basketball within the state, including Alabama under Avery Johnson.

''Gosh, they're good,'' Pearl said. ''They're not a team that you're going to want to match up with. They proved it last year.''

But they haven't proven it against top competition, even though only seven major college teams have more wins. The most impressive feat might have been a regular season sweep of Middle Tennessee (No. 91), the only other C-USA team rated in the top 100. The light national regard for the league hurts UAB's case for an at-large bid. Stephen F. Austin, rated 78th, is the only other Top 100 team UAB has beaten.

Nevertheless the stat sheet demonstrates the Blazers are deep, versatile and unselfish. They rank among the top four in C-USA in 16 statistical categories as a team but don't have a scorer ranked higher than Chris Cokley at 20th with his 13.5-point average that's just ahead of Brown. He's also the team's top rebounder but his 6.5 boards per game are 13th in the conference.

UAB also entered the week ranked fourth nationally in assists and second in blocked shots. William Lee's 91 blocks ranked sixth.

But Haase uses a deep rotation, playing nine players double digit minutes per game. The former Kansas guard said his team has handled the stress of big games well, and he doesn't downplay the importance of the league tournament.

His team's postseason run last season came a few months after UAB disbanded the football, rifle and bowling programs for financial reasons - temporarily, it turns out. Football is on its way back but UAB is still thriving on the hardcourt. Something else for the community to cheer about.

''I think UAB and Birmingham are taking notice that it's a fun team to watch and the program has done well,'' Haase said.

Now, he's hoping the NCAA Tournament selection committee is similarly impressed.

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