UAB flew to Las Vegas on Sunday to get a bit of a headstart on acclimating to the surroundings, with the NIT Final Four beginning on Tuesday.
"I think most all the guys, except a couple, have been to Las Vegas before," UAB head coach Andy Kennedy said before the traveling party boarded the bus to head to the charter flight. "We'll have an opportunity to go out there Sunday. It is very overwhelming for people who haven't experienced it. I want to kind of get that out of their minds so we can get back to business."
The first order of business for UAB (28-9) is Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. CT when the Blazers play Utah Valley (28-8) in the NIT national semifinals at Orleans Arena. The other semifinal matches North Texas (29-7) against Wisconsin (20-14), with tip-off scheduled for 6 p.m. CT. The first game will be broadcast on ESPN, and UAB's game will be shown on ESPN2.
Vegas Bound ✈️#WinAsOne pic.twitter.com/sR909iQfrK— UAB Men's Basketball (@UAB_MBB) March 26, 2023
Kennedy has been around college basketball for a long time as a player and a coach. He's been in the NIT Final Four as a player and coach. For him, having the Final Four somewhere other than New York City's Madison Square Garden is an adjustment.
"First year ever," Kennedy said of playing the NIT semifinals and championship game away from Madison Square Garden. "Since the 1930s, it's been in the Garden. Very strange. I've heard they're just going to move it away from the Garden for a number of different reasons. It will be different, but Vegas is Vegas. If you can't go to Madison Square Garden, you might as well go to Vegas."
This time through the NIT has been much more structured than when Kennedy and his UAB teammates made the Final Four in 1989.
"Back in the old NIT days, it was really bizarre because there were no brackets," Kennedy said. "Literally, you would play the game, and they would call you and tell you who, when and where you play next. Not until the NCAA bought it (in 2005), people don't remember, the NIT was an independent organization."
Gene Bartow's UAB team opened the 1989 NIT with a win over Georgia Southern and then won at Richmond, which had made the Sweet 16 after beating Indiana the year before.
"We beat (Richmond)," Kennedy said. "We fly home. We don't know who, when, where we are playing next. As soon as we land, Coach gets a call. He says, go repack. We come right back to the airport. We fly to UConn, and we play them the next day."
UAB won that game, lost to St. John's, which was playing nearby at Madison Square Garden, in the semifinals and beat Michigan State in the third-place game.
*Kennedy was asked about what the strong postseason play from teams leaving Conference USA means for the level of play in the American Athletic Conference next season. Florida Atlantic advanced to the NCAA Tournament Final Four. North Texas and UAB are still playing in the NIT, and Charlotte won the CBI. Rice won a game in the CBI before ending the season with a loss. Those five teams, along with UTSA, are moving into the AAC next season.
"The AAC is losing Cincinnati, a very proud program, which I was a part of, Central Florida, a program that's had its moments and then Houston, one of the best programs in college basketball, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament," Kennedy said. "But, you're gaining three teams that are still playing. (FAU) obviously is the story in college basketball, playing in the Final Four, a program that is even younger than ours. They are the only team since George Mason in 2006 that entered a tournament, never having won a game in the NCAA Tournament and going all the way to the Final Four. Pretty special company there. Obviously, North Texas has been tremendous, most especially in the three seasons I've been here. They've been to the postseason every year, and our program speaks for itself. Losing some people, but I think the blow is not going to be what's anticipated, simply because of the teams in Conference USA that have had success that are moving to the AAC."
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