The NIT wasn't the first choice for the UAB men's basketball team. That much has been established. But it also isn't strictly a consolation prize.
When you're one of the final eight Division I college basketball teams still playing, it becomes more than that.
"Everybody's goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament," said UAB head coach Andy Kennedy. "But I think there's real value when you look up on Tuesday night, and there's only going to be eight teams still playing college basketball, what that can do for your brand, reenergizing, understanding that UAB is a good basketball program. Let's reflect on what has been accomplished here in the past. Coach (Gene Bartow) has taken two teams to the NIT final four in 1989 and 1993. They never got to the championship game. Our goal is to do something that has not been done here in the storied history this program. We've never captured an NIT championship, so that's the goal."
UAB hopes it has two more steps in a grinding journey that began with aspirations of the program's second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. The first step comes on Tuesday night in a semifinal game against Utah Valley, with tip-off scheduled for 8:30 p.m. at Orleans Arena.
"We have won 28 games and going into our 30th game," Kennedy said. "It has been a long journey and one that has certainly been full of peaks and valleys, like life. Again, I'm just proud that these guys got up off the mat, continued to move forward."
For the Blazers, it's a matter of fighting through individual setbacks as well as tough times as a team. That comes with perseverance.
"We preach it daily," Kennedy said. "I think it's the most valuable trait. I've got two daughters myself, and I got 12 sons on this team. I think it's the most valuable trait that you can teach young people. Life's not going to be fair. Life's going to throw you some curves. You've got to get up and move forward. It's easy to say. It's hard to do."
The Blazers' run through the NIT has been marked by some outstanding individual performances. KJ Buffen had a career-high 26 points, and 12 rebounds in the win over Southern Miss. Ty Brewer was unstoppable with 25 points in the victory over Morehead State. Jordan "Jelly" Walker was tremendous after halftime in the win at Vanderbilt.
Through it all, though, nobody has been as consistent as 6-foot-11, 260-pound center Trey Jemison. In three NIT game, he is 20 of 26 (76.9 percent) from the field. He averaged 14 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in the three games.
"I've made no secret, this guy is going to have an opportunity to play professional basketball for as long as the good Lord allows, and then he's going to be very successful in whatever the next phase of his life is," Kennedy said. "I'm proud for him because I know he puts the work in. I don't ever have any doubts, game in and game out, that Trey is going to bring his lunch pail and do his job. I don't have any doubts that will continue in Las Vegas."
Jemison said he's glad for the opportunity to extend his college career.
"It's been huge for us to come and play this Final Four NIT," Jemison said. "Coach talked about all the time that, hey, each game is an opportunity and with the opportunity, you get to show how good you really are as a player, and we are just blessed to have that opportunity once again."
The motivation of extending their career for one more game is real for the UAB seniors. Walker, one of those six seniors, said it's also an audition.
"The less amount of teams that are playing, the more eyes are on you," Walker said. "Obviously, like a bunch of us, we have six seniors on our team. We know that basketball at college is coming to an end, and a lot of our goals is try to play at the next level. So, having an opportunity where everyone can see us play and see our ability and see how great of a team we are, and individually how great of players we are, I think it definitely is amazing."
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