The chance to take a breath after the longest season in UAB men’s basketball history never really came. Instead, after 39 games in six months, Andy Kennedy traded a break for a transition.
Maneuvering through an eventful season turned into basically restocking about half of the roster. Somehow, someway the UAB coaching staff put together a roster that, on paper, is filled with talent and experience.
The postseason additions consist of transfer portal additions Barry Dunning, Jr. (Arkansas), Will Shaver (North Carolina), Daniel Ortiz (UNA) and James White (Ole Miss), and Arizona Western College teammates Yaxel Lendeborg and Marquis Hargrove.
“We just jumped in, at the end of the season, and had to figure it out,” Kennedy said. “We were really fortunate that we were able to pick up Yaxel. He’s a tremendous player that became available after the fact because of a coaching change. Then we got back in that portal and brought in two Alabama natives. We just kind of sold opportunity and we sold success and we sold relationships.”
Kennedy said a prior relationship with Ortiz’s high school coach was helpful in that case. With White, Kennedy and his staff recruited him out of high school so there was a previous relationship there. Obviously, there were connections with Alabama natives Shaver and Dunning.
Mix in three early signees – junior college standouts Alejandro Vasquez and Christian Coleman and high school product KJ Satterfield - and the Blazers will have at least nine new faces show up to campus.
“Never before have I ever been involved in a nine-man class,” Kennedy said.
There could be one more. Eric Gaines is currently still in the NBA draft pool with the option of returning to school. He was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine but did have individual workouts and meetings with a handful of NBA organizations. Gaines still has a decision to make. Kennedy said the staff has to be prepared either way, which means they are still recruiting for what would be the final scholarship.
“We would fill the spot,” Kennedy said. “We’ve still got a lot of different options out there. We’re just trying to be honest with the people we’re recruiting. We want to make sure we do what’s in his best interest. As a coach, I want the players to put themselves in the best position possible to be successful. We’re just trying to help Eric through the process, just like we did last year with Jelly (Waker).”
In early June, when the players report, the work begins on turning this roster into a team. On paper, it’s not much different than a year ago when six new players joined the team. But the core of that team was already proven.
“I think it will be very, very helpful to us, just like it was last summer, to start figuring out who we are,” Kennedy said. “What is going to be our identity as a team? We’ve seen them but until you’ve seen them (in person) and until you get them all together, you don’t really know exactly the best way for your team to have a chance to be successful. The eight weeks that we get in the summer, starting in June, will be very, very pivotal for us in understanding who we are and what we need to do to try to be best version of self.”
It is a bit unnerving for UAB that the Blazers lose over 80% of their scoring production from last season and that’s with Gaines among the returnees. Take his points out of the equation and its moves to over 85%.
Returnees Javian Davis, Tony Toney and Butta Johnson are key to the entire process.
“They’re pivotal, they set the tone,” Kennedy said. “They’re the only ones that know the routine. They know the verbiage, they know the expectations. It’s very, very important for them to set the tone immediately when these new guys start getting in here the next few weeks.”
Davis is the only returnee with just one year of eligibility remaining. The 6-foot-9, 265-pound Davis is entering his second season at UAB and sixth college season overall. He averaged 6.1 points and four rebounds in 15.4 minutes per game last season.
“JD, I’m sure will take on more of a leadership role, now that he has a better understanding of who we are and what the expectation is internally,” Kennedy said. “He also has that senior sense of urgency, which as coaches you talk about all the time but until you are that senior you just kind of roll your eyes. I can already sense it in him. He realizes this is his last go round before he can put himself in a better position, hopefully, to be a professional player.”
Kennedy is anxious to see how Davis and Shaver mesh while sharing the post position. Kennedy said he expects the 6-foot-10 Shaver to play at around 270 pounds.
“It was important for us to add quality size,” Kennedy said “And, also, putting the pieces of this puzzle together, I wanted guys that complemented one another. (Shaver is) a big guy, a big body guy who really hasn’t played much basketball over the last two seasons. He reclassed his senior year to go and redshirt and then he broke his foot early into his first year of being able to play. I know he’s really anxious to get back healthy, get his body back in shape, have an opportunity to compete. At 6-foot-10, he brings a skillset that we have never had at that position because of his ability to shoot the ball from 3. I think JD and Will I think can be a really, really great combo.”
Point guard is another position to watch during the summer, even if Gaines returns. Early signees Alejandro Vasquez and KJ Satterfield have point guard experience and Ortiz, a shooting guard at UNA, will probably get a look there.
“He’ll do what he can prove to be capable of doing,” Kennedy said when asked where Ortiz fits into the lineup. “Some people, when they think of point guard, they think of Bob Cousy and he just dribbles up and passes to Havlicek. The modern day point guard is Steph Curry, it’s James Harden. It’s a guy that initiates offense and creates opportunities for himself and his teammates. It’s what Jelly did. Ortiz was one of a three-guard lineup and like most coaches do, they played to his strength, which is to score the ball. He did a very good job of that. I call them primary and secondary ball handlers. We try to have at least three primary ball handlers on the floor at the same time. Worst case, you have to have two. He’ll certainly be in that category.”
In other words, just like throughout the lineup, time will tell. What’s important though is Kennedy and his staff added the puzzle pieces and this summer they’ll begin the task of putting the puzzle together."
"We never look at it like this is going to be a rebuilding year," Kennedy said. "We look at it like we will continue the momentum that has been built. We’re excited about the challenge that the American Athletic Conference is going to hold, as we embark into this new era of UAB athletics. We want to make sure that we’re ready to be competitive and put ourselves in position, as we have in our first three years, to go compete for championships."
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