BIRMINGHAM — The defensive deficiencies that arose on the trip to Florida weren't born there. UAB has played with those the entire season. However, final results often masked the problems.
"What's become painfully clear to me is we just got to be better on containing the bounce. It allows us to be better on our rotations, allows us to be better on the defensive glass, all the fundamental things that we've talked about all year," said UAB head coach Andy Kennedy. "But, when you're winning games, with the exception of two, prior to going on this Florida trip, you just say it's not been so problematic that it's costing us games. Well, now that's changed."
The entire tenor of the UAB season seemingly changed this past week when 86 and 87 points were not enough to win basketball games. The frustration came out in Kennedy's words and his tone following the 90-87 overtime loss at FIU on Saturday. He promised change. During his weekly meeting with the press on Tuesday, Kennedy was calmer than in the moments following the loss. But the message remains the same as the Blazers (12-4 overall, 3-2 C-USA) return to Conference USA play on Wednesday night at 8 p.m. against Western Kentucky at Bartow Arena.
"We'll continue to schematically work on trying to them in the best possible situations for them to be successful and continue to figure out from a lineup standpoint how we can maximize our personnel," Kennedy said. "Then it comes down to personal accountability, understanding what we're trying to get done and committing to getting it done."
Kennedy said the tape of Saturday's loss at FIU "reconfirmed what you see with the naked eye." He said areas of struggle for his team defensively are being exposed by opposing teams. One of those areas is with the starting backcourt of 5-foot-10, 160-pound Jelly Walker and 6-foot-2, 155-pound Eric Gaines, who are dynamic playmakers, but strength isn't their size and strength.
"There are times that physically we get overmatched," Kennedy said. "That's why we extend our pressure as much as we do. We feel like we have the opportunity to counter some of that disadvantage we have in the half court if we can get you in the full court. But our full court has not been as problematic as it needs to be in order to lessen that advantage. We've got to get better in that area, or we've got to look at changing the ways we are doing some things."
Another problem is no one has stepped up to fill the role that Quan Jackson provided the past two seasons. The
"He was incredible in his ability to make plays off the ball in his area," Kennedy said. "He was also physical, and he was stronger, and he was tougher, and he was a sixth-year senior, who was hungry to go to the NCAA Tournament, something he'd never experienced before. All those things factored into his approach. Right now, we don't have anybody with that approach. We've got guys that have the physical tools to do some of the things. Not all the things, but no two players are ever the same."
So how do they find that guy?
"Somebody's got to emerge," Kennedy said. 'I checked the waiver wire as I was walking over here, and I didn't see any available. We have what we need in that locker room. I say this constantly, best version of self. We've got to get some guys to step up and play to their potential."
Wednesday night would be a good time to start. Kennedy said that Western Kentucky guard Dayvion McKnight is one of the most dynamic players in the league, lumping him in that category with Jelly Walker and North Texas' Tylor Perry.
"They do it in such a different way," Kennedy said. "We need somebody to step into the role of taking on the challenge of staying in front of him. You're never going to stop him, but you've got to make life difficult for him."
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound McKnight, who has started 64 games at WKU, averages 17 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. He has just 23 3-point attempts in 15 games.
As a team, the Hilltoppers are struggling without head coach Rick Stansbury, who has yet to coach a conference game because of an illness. Phil Cunningham is serving as the interim head coach until Stansbury returns. Western Kentucky (9-6 overall) lost its first three C-USA games before winning at UTSA last Saturday.
For UAB, it's an opportunity to erase some frustration and move forward.
"I think in a season, every team goes through adversity," said backup center Javian Davis. "I think adversity kind of helps most teams and individuals. When tough times come, that makes you want to rise to the occasion more and try to be ready for the next play or the next game. Right now, the way we practiced, we're trying to lock in. It's most definitely a wake-up call. It's do-or-die at this point."
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