Jan. 9, 2014
By: Steve Irvine, UABSports.com
UAB men's basketball head coach Jerod Haase has a good handle on what to expect from his team heading into Conference USA play. Knowing what to expect from the competition during his second trip through C-USA play, however, isn't quite as easy to nail down.
"Last year was all unique and new to me," Haase said before his team's practice on Wednesday. "This year it certainly is as well, not just for us, but for a lot of teams in the conference. I think, everybody in the conference, their ability to adjust and handle adversity throughout the season and handle quick turnarounds and handle extended travel, all of that will play into it. We have a veteran team, hopefully they'll continue to grow and we'll have a chance."
Jordan Swing is set for his fourth trip through C-USA play, counting the season he sat out after transferring from Western Kentucky, but he's also not quite sure what to expect from a 16-team group that is split in half between returning teams and newcomers.
"We'll just take it week by week," Swing said. "We really have to study the conference. We won't know a lot of the players from last year because there are so many new teams. I don't think it's that big of deal when it comes to game day."
UAB does have recent knowledge of one of the newcomers, Middle Tennessee, which plays host to the Blazers on Saturday at 5 .m. at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro. The teams played each of the past four seasons with UAB winning the first three and Middle Tennessee claiming an 84-64 win over the visiting Blazers last season.
After that, it's going to be a mixture of the expected and the unexpected, and Haase is excited to get started.
"There is a lot of depth," Haase said. "With that many teams, you're going to have a lot of different styles of play, a lot of different coaching styles. The ability to adjust will be crucial because it won't be the same type thing, game in or out."
UAB, which finished non-conference play with an 11-3 record, is one of six conference teams with double digit wins in non-conference play. The others are Southern Miss (13-2), Louisiana Tech (12-3), East Carolina (11-4), Middle Tennessee (10-5) and UTEP (10-5). Four others have at least eight wins and each of those teams are above .500.
The Blazers are a confident group after a successful non-conference slate that included a win over North Carolina and a double overtime loss to then-nationally ranked New Mexico.
"I think the biggest thing we've learned is we can play with anybody," said Swing, who is averaging 9.2 points per game. "We played some of the top teams in the nation and we either won the game or were right there in the end. I think that gave us a lot of confidence coming into the non-conference season."
UAB is also a veteran group with four seniors and two juniors leading the way in minutes played thus far. Junior point guard Chad Frazier is probably the league's top newcomer at this point, averaging 17.6 points and five assists, and junior forward C.J. Washington (14.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg) isn't far behind. Senior forward Rod Rucker (10.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg) is his usual steady self, senior center Fahro Alihodzic (10.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg) is a force inside and senior sixth man Robert Williams (9.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg) just may the team's MVP thus far.
The Blazers, who lead the country in rebounds per game, also have several other players who could fit into the rotation during conference play. Overall, Haase likes what he's seen from his team but also stresses that improvement is needed for the Blazers to challenge for a conference crown.
"From an identity perspective, I do think we're a tough minded team that's obviously a great rebounding team," Haase said. "We have some deficiencies that we're continuing to address in terms of creating steals on defense and getting our shooting percentage to go up. We can do that in a variety of ways. The other thing I've learned is it's a tight knit group. When we're at our best we're very, very good. When we're not at our best, we look like a lot of other teams."