The next step for the UAB men's basketball team begins on Thursday with the onset of Conference USA play.

While it's an earlier start than usual to conference play for the Blazers, it's actually a step behind six teams that have already played a conference game. UAB coach Andy Kennedy expects conference play to be more difficult, from top to bottom, than it's been in the recent past.

Ten of the 11 C-USA teams came into league play with a record above .500. FIU, which was 4-5 heading into conference play, is the only team with a losing record. FAU, which beat FIU handily on Saturday, is 10-1 overall, including a win over Florida in Gainesville. The Owls' lone loss came at Ole Miss in the second regular season game of the season. UAB, Charlotte and North Texas are each 9-2 and Western Kentucky is 8-2.

"Under the current configuration of Conference USA teams, which would be about eight or nine seasons, give or take, this is the highest (the conference) has ever been rated," said Kennedy, whose team plays its C-USA opener against visiting Charlotte on Thursday. "We're rated 10th in the country. The highest they've been rated was 13th, which they tied last year. The league is good. It's as good as it's ever been, top to bottom. We need to be prepared for that."

As of the beginning of games on Monday, FAU had the highest NCAA Men's Basketball Net rankings amongst Conference USA teams. The Owls were 14th in the rankings, with North Texas (56th), UAB (63rd), Charlotte (67th) and Middle Tennessee (107th) rounding out the top five for the conference. Louisiana Tech (201st), UTSA (284tg) and FIU (299th) are the only teams in the conference above 200.

"I'm a Basketball Jones. I'm a pretty boring guy," Kennedy said. "I watch a lot of ball. I've seen really everybody in the top 150. I just watch a lot of basketball. I think our league is good, not just top-heavy good. I think it's good top to bottom."

Conference USA teams are playing 20 conference games this season, which sets up a home-and-home with each team. UAB's first three conference games are at home, with UTEP coming to town on December 29 and UTSA playing at Bartow Arena two days later.

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