Anderson's Blazers Are At It - Again

FAYETTEVILLE - Here he goes again.

This from Friday morning's Associated Press lead: "Pressing, trapping and causing havoc, UAB's defense was at its frenetic best.

"Yep, the Blazers could be ready for another deep run in the NCAA Tournament."

It's beginning to look like watching Mike Anderson run Alabama-Birmingham past lofty foes in the NCAA Tournament will become a rite of spring for once-again disappointed Arkansas fans - one of the few reasons for them to tune into March Madness.

Thursday night, Anderson pointed and prodded his high-octane team past LSU as the quick, athletic, swarming and fun as heck to watch Blazers (22-10) turned the Tigers every which way but loose in UAB's 82-68 annihilation (the lead reached 25 points) of the SEC West co-champs.

The 45-year-old former Arkansas assistant (Anderson was the right-hand man for Nolan Richardson here for 14 seasons) directed the demolition on familiar ground. Last time Arkansas made the NCAA Tournament (a 63-61 loss against Georgetown way back in 2001), Anderson stood on the same spots of Boise State's gym.

This is not necessarily to compare abilities, but rather to illustrate where the UAB and Arkansas programs stand three years into coaching changes.

Under Stan Heath, the Hogs have yet to reach postseason play and have not come close to grabbing an NCAA Tournament berth.

With Anderson (who was named UAB's coach on April 4, 2002; and it certainly was not he who was the April Fool at the time), the Blazers have netted postseason appearances since Season 1.

His first season was the biggest turnaround in UAB history as Anderson's bunch went 21-13.

Last season, the ninth-seeded Blazers were the darlings of the NCAA Tournament, knocking off No. 8 Washington before stunning No. 1 overall seed Kentucky 76-75 on the way to the Sweet 16, where they finally ran out of gas against Kansas.

Thursday night, the 11th-seeded Blazers (maybe the last team to make the bracket) put it on No. 6 LSU from the get-go of their Chicago Regional opener. Cardell "Squeaky" Johnson forced LSU point guard Tack Minor into two turnovers on the Tigers' first three possessions. LSU would go on to have 21 turnovers, 7 by Minor, which was a huge deal.

While UAB hit 45.8 percent from the floor and had 15 oft-dandy assists, the Tigers struggled mightily, making just 35 percent and only 6 of 31 3-pointers.

"Basically, they hadn't faced pressure like we've given all year long," said UAB senior guard Donell Taylor, one of four Blazers who averages double-figure scoring. "They were kind of thinking we would come out a little weak and they'd be able to do what they want to do.

"But we got in those guys' grills and they were kicking the ball off their feet and throwing passes at each other's knees."

Just like last season, it was wonderful to watch this version of 40 Minutes of Hell. Also like last season, Richardson (who was fired for crazy comments) was right there with Anderson, who played guard for his mentor at Tulsa.

Anderson and Richardson paired up for a 338-129 record at Arkansas, netting the national championship in 1994 and the runnerup the following season. They made three Final Fours and averaged a whopping 27 wins in the 1990s.

Theirs was the fifth-winningest program of that decade, behind only Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke.

Not bad company.

At UAB, the first-time head coach is 65-32 and was named the Ray Meyer Conference USA Coach of the Year last season.

More Arkansas/UAB connections: Right-hand man Scott Edgar was an assistant here from 1986-92 and he's married to the former Elaine Dial of Fayetteville.

Assistant Matt Zimmerman was the head manager and a student assistant at Arkansas from 1987-90 and ran Richardson's summer camps from 1996-2001. Before rejoining Anderson, Zimmerman (who earned his physical education degree from the UA in 1990) was the head coach at Dardenelle High for four seasons.

He's a lively guy and we've been known to bend elbows and the truth on my annual trips to Birmingham.

Former Arkansas signee Brandon Tobias, who was released from his commitment after Richardson's firing, had 6 points and 3 rebounds Thursday night. An AP photo on several Internet sites (and lots of newspapers in other parts of the country) Friday morning showed him grinning and pumping his right fist.

Former Arkansas forward Wen Mukubu transferred to UAB last year and had to sit out this season.

If Tennessee or some other larger program doesn't woo Anderson from Birmingham (where he was born and raised), and Heath fails to survive next season, it's possible - just possible - the connection between Arkansas and Anderson will become much, much closer.

But first things first.

Anderson and the Blazers hope - no, plan - to keep the ball rolling against No. 3 Arizona (which knocked off No. 14 Utah State on Thursday) today.

"I thought our guys were clicking on a lot of different cylinders," said Anderson after Thursday night's win. "We've been playing some pretty good basketball and now you're seeing some of the parts starting to come together."

ESPN named UAB it's team of the day:

"Yes, Wisconsin-Milwaukee (which shocked Alabama) pulled the bigger 'seed upset,' but no team surpassed expectations more than UAB."

This afternoon's tip is scheduled for 5:20.

Should be fun to watch.


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