BIRMINGHAM – UAB is coming off what head coach Andy Kennedy said is perhaps the best 50 minutes of defense that his team has played since he returned to his alma mater. FAU, the 19th ranked team in the country, is in the midst of its best season in school history.
The two teams collide in Conference USA play Thursday night at 6 p.m. at Bartow Arena.
“I hope our guys want to prove something,” Kennedy said. “Sometimes, it’s funny how attention comes to you in a program. Sometimes, you’ve got to generate for yourself. Sometimes the people that you’re playing generate a platform and you got to take advantage of that. They’ve been tremendous. Not only have they been the best team in our league but they’ve been one of the hottest teams in college basketball.”
Nobody hurt UAB (15-7 overall, 6-5 C-USA) more in the teams’ first meeting than Johnell Davis, a 6-foot-4 senior, who scored 36 points in the 88-86 win. Kennedy said if the vote came today, then he would expect that Davis would be the Conference USA Player of the Year. And he’s just a part of the equation for the Owls.
Davis averages a team-high 13.2 points per game, and four others average at least 9.3 points per game. Seven players have at least 23 3-pointers with Nick Boyd hitting a team-best 39 3-pointers for the Owls (21-1 overall, 11-0 C-USA).
“They shoot a lot of 3s. They don’t shoot a lot of 2s,” Kennedy said. “They get to the foul line, not the rate we do. They do a great job defensively on guarding, not only the 3-point line but inside. They don’t turn it over a lot. They don’t have any glaring weaknesses.”
Kennedy points to the FAU starting lineup as proof.
“Michael Forrest and Alijah Martin are arguably their two best returning players and both those kids come off the bench,” Kennedy said. “They’ve taken roles by which this team can be successful.”
One of the big keys for UAB, particularly if Jordan "Jelly" Walker can’t play, is keeping Eric Gaines on the floor.
In the past three games, Gaines played 37, 38 and 39 minutes. Take away the 45 and 40 minutes he played in overtime games against UTEP and FIU, and those are the three most minutes he’s been on the floor this season for Andy Kennedy’s Blazers.
“It’s not extra pressure, but I have been playing extra minutes,” Gaines said. “It’s one of those things where Coach says he’s going to help me along the way. Me being out there as the main guard, I have to bring the ball up every possession and I’ve got to play defense too. It’s not easy, but AK is one of those coaches that will help me out. If he feels my fatigue level is about to show, he’ll slow the ball down.”
Kennedy said it has changed his team’s offensive plan.
“Without Jelly on the floor, obviously, the focal point is going to be on Eric and trying to limit his space,” Kennedy said. “He’s obviously better in space. The biggest thing it’s done for me, schematically, we have the change and are not playing as fast. Without Jelly, we don’t get as many open floor opportunities. Defensively, it’s limited our ability to extend pressure.”
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