Alabama-Birmingham the surprise of Conference USA

Could the Blazers be team to topple Memphis?

December 29, 2009|By Shannon Ryan On college basketball

There was plenty of preseason talk about Memphis losing its Super Glued-on crown in Conference USA.

Tulsa was the popular pick to possibly unseat the perennial champion Tigers, who looked solid enough to reclaim the conference title until a loss at Massachusetts on Dec. 19.

Alabama-Birmingham was hardly part of the debate.

Until this week.

Following up on last season's 22-victory season, the Blazers are 11-1 and cracked into the Associated Press Top 25 on Monday for the first time since 2005-06 with impressive victories over then-No. 25 Cincinnati (64-47) and then-No. 20 Butler (67-57) at Bartow Arena. In between was a victory at South Alabama, which had just defeated Florida.

How did they do it?

UAB's defense under former Indiana coach Mike Davis has throttled opponents.

In 11 victories, the Blazers haven't allowed an opponent to score more than 64 points and have held nine of them below 60 points.

They have held opponents to 38.5 percent shooting overall and 28.2 percent on 3-pointers. The Bearcats shot 31.7 percent and the Bulldogs 33.9 percent.

After the latter game, Butler coach Brad Stevens told reporters UAB's defense is "one of the best in the country."

UAB didn't rely on a single star to supply points in the upsets either.

Against Butler, guard Jamarr Sanders scored 18 points, and 5-foot-8 guard Aaron Johnson added 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Against Cincinnati, Elijah Millsap scored 22 points. The 6-6 Millsap, who is averaging 15.4 points and leads the conference with 9.8 rebounds per game, sat out last season after transferring from Louisiana-Lafayette.

"We played a big-time basketball team," Davis told reporters after the Butler victory. "We look forward to playing teams like this in our home gym."

It will be a while.

The Blazers put their newfound status on the line when they go on the road this week to play Virginia and Arkansas.

Swish of the week: West Virginia. In a stronger-than-anticipated Big East, the Mountaineers are proving they have the durability to play in tough games.

They survived early games without Devin Ebanks, who was absent for personal reasons. Then they beat teams that looked like nobodies but eventually made the Top 25 in Texas A & M and Portland. And this week they downed Mississippi at home and withstood a furious Seton Hall rally to win in overtime on the road in the conference opener.

Sophomore Kevin Jones (15.5 ppg) has been a surprising complement to Ebanks (13.2 ppg) and Da'Sean Butler (16.5 ppg).

Brick of the week: Florida. The Gators made us believers with victories against Florida State and then-No. 2 Michigan State to start the season 8-0.

Then came a recent three game slide, each loss worse than the previous. Losing to Syracuse is excusable. Losing to Richmond is glaring. Losing to South Alabama at home is alarming.

The loss was the first at home in December for the Gators since 2004, and that was to Louisville. The Gators need January to resemble November more than December.

Game of the week: Texas Tech at New Mexico, Tuesday. Nobody expected much out of either team, but both were nice surprises in the early season.

The Lobos (12-1) were cruising along with victories against California and Texas A & M before losing to Oral Roberts. The Red Raiders (10-1) beat Washington and Stanford but were tripped up by Wichita State on the road.

Both teams look bound for the NCAA tournament, and this could help the resume of the winner.

sryan@tribune.com

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