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With the current NCAA regulations, the first day of official basketball practice for Andy Kennedy and his UAB team was more like the continuation of what they started in the summer. It’s nothing like Kennedy’s days as a UAB player under Gene Bartow.

“Some of the old guard were asking, ‘Hey, you doing Midnight Madness?’” Kennedy said. “You know that was the thing, you practice at midnight on Oct. 15. Back in the day, I wouldn’t see Coach Bartow. Players wouldn’t see the head coach until Oct. 15. You would lift weights, you would run, you would play pickup, but you wouldn’t interact with your coaches whatsoever. Now, we’ve gone complete opposite on that spectrum. We had them eight weeks over the summer.”

Now, teams practice in the summer, take a few weeks off and start back at the beginning of the fall semester. The hours are more limited than during the season, but they do get some work with the coaches. Official practice now can begin 42 days before a team’s first game and they can have 30 practices during that time.

“It’s kind of a grind but it doesn’t really feel like a grind,” Kennedy said. “It kind of feels like a progression of what we already started.”

One thing that hasn’t changed for Kennedy, in the early days of practice, is that he really likes his team. He brings back six of the top nine, including Conference USA Player of the Year Jelly Walker, from last year’s team that won 27 games, captured the Conference USA Tournament and played in the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 2015. He brought in five transfer portal players and one high school player.

“The quality of depth, I got eight guys, that should be out of college,” Kennedy said. “COVID has kept 8 of my 12 in college, it’s kind of amazing. They are older guys, with that you get a little bit more of a mature approach.”

The Blazers are experienced, accomplished and deep.

“We are allowed 13 scholarship players,” Kennedy said. “We’re operating with 12 and that’s by design. We like our 12. I think honestly what gives us a chance to have a tremendous team is I’ve got 12 guys who can start. I’ve got 12 guys that would have started, in some form or fashion, on the first two teams we had. Obviously, those are two good teams, good enough to win 49 games.”

No matter how you jumble it up, though, everything starts with Walker, who was one of the most prolific scorers in NCAA basketball last season. The 5-foot-11 sixth-year senior, who is entering his second season at UAB, was third in the nation with 116 3-pointers and led the team with 20.3 points per game.  

Things have changed for him since this time a year ago.

“We knew when we got him last year, he was a dynamic playmaker,” Kennedy said. “We were getting to know him. He was getting to know us. We joke all the time, and this is the truth, this time last year, he was fighting to be the starting point guard. He, obviously, was a good player but he had not cemented himself as the guy that we, now, all know him to be. Now, he is a national name in college basketball. It’s funny what has transpired.”

Kennedy said Walker is a better player than he was last season.

“He’s stronger, he has a much better understanding of what my expectations are, he’s much more mature and he’s hungry to build off last year’s success,” Kennedy said. “The thing about Jelly, I give him a lot of freedom because he’s earned that freedom. Here’s a guy who made 116 3-pointers last year, which is the third most in America, at 40%. My math is not great, but 40% from three, equates to 60% from two. I can live with those numbers.”

Time will still determine what the rotation looks like for this team.

“There is a lot of time, a lot of moving parts,” Kennedy said. “If you were to come in and watch us today, you would say X, Y and Z played really well, then, the next day it might be three other guys. That’s the quality of depth issue moving forward. We’ve got to continue to grow, continue to figure out combinations and figure out the best way to play.”

Part of that is working toward a solid rotation, which isn’t easy when you have the depth Kennedy and his program enjoys.

“I’m very, very upfront in that you can’t play 12 guys,” Kennedy said. “Eight guys can be somewhat happy. You can maybe get a ninth in there, maybe a 10th, things happen, injuries happen, you always got to be ready. Guys have to differentiate themselves, they have to separate themselves from the pack. We’ve got a few guys that have certainly done that, others there is still work to be done.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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