NCAA Round 1 Preview - Alabama-Birmingham

The No. 8 seed Washington Huskies (19-11) make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999, their 11th overall, when they meet No. 8 UAB (20-9) on Friday, March 19. The St. Louis Region first-round match up takes place at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Tip-off is approximately 6:40 p.m. Pacific Time (9:40 Eastern).

Washington is perhaps the hottest team in the country over their past 17 games. Just 41 days after residing in last place, the Huskies vaulted into sole possession of second place in the Pac-10 standings with an 89-84 victory at Arizona on Feb. 26. The 75-62 triumph over No. 1 Stanford (Mar. 6) clinched UW's first second-place finish since 1986. UW won 12 of its final 13 Pac-10 regular-season games, its best streak ever.

The Blazers make their living off of defense and creating turnovers. They lead the country in making their opponents give up the ball, forcing a ridiculous 723 turnovers last season. The 598 miscues they've forced this year seems paltry in comparison.

They have depth and have been known to play 12 players in a game. The two top guys off of the bench are the Taylor twins, Donell and Ronell. They are experienced as well with three seniors in the starting line up and two more on the bench. When it comes to crunch time, these guys won't likely get the jitters.

UAB isn't an offensive juggernaut, as they only score 74 points per game on 44% shooting from the field, and they only have a 65% success rate from the free throw line. The Dawgs have averaged over 81 points on 46% shooting, and 71% from the line. The Dawgs get the edge from the three-point line, but just barely, as the Huskies have connected on 35% compared to the Blazers' 33%.

Point guard Carldell ‘Squeaky' Johnson is not a scoring threat but steals the ball 2.2 times per game and is the top assist man with 4.2 per contest. The scoring threat is the other guard, Morris ‘Mo' Finley, who pours in 13.5 a game and has made 57 three-pointers this season. The only other Blazer to average in double figures is forward Gabe Kennedy, a 6-9 beast inside. He uses his 255 pounds to get inside for high percentage shots. He averages 11.5 and pulls down 5.5 rebounds per game. Small forward Demario Eddins averages over 9 points and is a ball hawker with just under two steals per contest. Sidney Ball is the likely starter at the other forward position. He averages just under 8 points and 5.4 boards per contest.

UAB Coach Mike Anderson is in just his second year as the Blazers head man, having come to Birmingham after an 11-year stint in Arkansas. "To see it all come together and have the opportunity to go to 'the Big Dance', that's exciting for us," said Anderson. "To get to the tournament in only two years, it's amazing. When I took the job, I promised that we would work extremely hard. Seeing the things that are taking place because of the hard work is satisfying. This is great for our players and a great way for our seniors to end their careers."

Last year Anderson guided the Blazers to the best single-season improvement in school history. UAB finished last season with a 21-13 record overall and an 8-8 Conference USA record, which was good enough to finish second in the National Division. Anderson was one of only three Division I coaches last season to win at least 20 games in his first year as a head coach.

The high point of the UAB season was an 80-69 shellacking of Cincinnati, ranked #17 at the time. The Blazer's frenetic defense forced the Bearcats into a whopping 21 turnovers. Down early, UAB forced seven turnovers in a 20-5 run and held Cincinnati to two field goals in an 8:34 span when the game was decided.

The game that got everyone's attention was when the Blazers went to Starkville and played Mississippi State to a stand-still, losing on the last shot of the game, 86-84. Finley showed his ability to take over a game, as he went for 38, including UAB's final 17 points of the game. The Blazers probably could've won but MSU received some home cooking in the form of 29 fouls whistled against UAB to just 15 against the Bulldogs. Still, it took a 9-3 run at the end of the game to pull it out for the home team. The Bulldogs received a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Against the one common opponent with Washington, UAB blew out Houston 64-42 behind Donell Taylor's 15 points at home. Just to show the versatility of the Blazer lineup, Anderson used 11 players in the first eight minutes, changing lineups in an effort to find some offense. It worked. Washington lost to the Cougars in Houston 79-64 in an awful loss where the Dawgs could only muster 36% shooting, 23% from three-point range.
Probable Blazer Starters

G Morris ‘Mo' Finley 5-11 senior 13.5 ppg
G Carldell ‘Squeaky' Johnson 5-10 sophomore 4.5 ppg, 4.2 apg
F Sidney Ball 6-6 senior 7.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg
F Demario Eddins 6-7 sophomore 9.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg
F Gabe Kennedy 6-9 senior 11.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg


Keys to the game:

1) Take care of the ball - Washington guards Will Conroy and Nate Robinson have to make smart decisions with the rock. Tre Simmons has to avoid some turnover prone tendencies. The Huskies will face more intense heat than they have seen all season, and they'll be doing it in front of a CBS audience. UAB takes the ball away as well as an ex-Husky football coach picks the winners in these tournaments.

2) Pick up the pieces - Tre Simmons was only able to get one uncontested look at an open three-pointer against Stanford. If the motion offense isn't getting the Blazers out of position, back picks will be key in freeing up Jensen and Simmons, Washington's two biggest threats outside. Also, Brandon Roy will need to get open. Stanford shut him down and the Huskies had no one to score inside.

3) Go to the body - This is a team Washington can out-rebound with little trouble. Jensen, Rollins, Roy, and Washington (if he plays) will need to put bodies on the big guy Kennedy, who is a load. Second-chance points killed the Dawgs in their rematch with Stanford. UAB is not a good rebounding team, and although Washington is not great either, they can win this battle.

Dawgman's Pick: Washington 71, Alabama-Birmingham 68

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