For the first time in the current configuration of Conference USA, UAB men’s basketball coach Andy Kennedy said it could be a two-bid league in the NCAA Tournament. However, that two-bid possibility comes with a particular circumstance.
Florida Atlantic, the regular season champ, needs to lose in the Conference USA Tournament.
“I think they’re deserving of that,” Kennedy of FAU, receiving an at-large berth if needed. “Based on their numbers, I think we’ll see the fruition of that if they don’t capture the tournament championship, which we certainly hope they do not.”
Kennedy knows that his team has one way to get into the NCAA Tournament, the same way the Blazers advanced last season. They have to win three games in three days in their final trip to Ford Arena at the Star in Frisco.
“I’m excited about the opportunity this tournament provides,” Kennedy said. “We were in a very similar situation last year where we went in with expectations, not as high as this year, based on what we accomplished last year. We didn’t meet our first goal, which is to win a regular season championship. It gives us an opportunity, one last shot, in proving what we believe is the case. That is, we’re the best team in this league, and now we have to go play like that.”
UAB enters Thursday night's quarterfinal game against Rice playing as good as the Blazers have all season long. The Blazers won their final six games of the regular season and have won 10 of 11 games since Jordan "Jelly" Walker returned from a five-game absence after hurting his foot.
"It forced us to make change and figure out kind of who we are," Kennedy said. "In his absence, it forced other guys to take on more prominent roles. I think that has helped us now that we're back at full speed. Different guys have had to step up in different situations, as a result of that, I think we're playing our basketball."
That includes Walker, who has scored at least 20 points in six of the last seven games. He had a season-high 41 points in the regular season finale and 32 points two games prior to that against Rice. He has at least four 3-pointers in six of those seven games, with games of eight, seven and six 3-pointers during that span.
Earlier this week, Conference USA announced its postseason awards. Walker did not repeat as the Conference USA Player of the Year. The award went to North Texas point guard Tylor Perry, which could light a fire under Walker this week in Frisco.
"Those things are important to Jelly," Kennedy said. "And he's at least man enough to admit that they are. Some people act like, 'Oh, I don't really care.' He'll tell you he cares, and he does."
However, the motivation travels much deeper than individual awards.
"He understands that big picture," Kennedy said. "The big picture is we still have unfinished business. He didn't play particularly well. We didn't play particularly well in the NCAA Tournament last year. He wants that opportunity to make amends for that, as do we. Coming into this, the way I sense the group is they do come in with a sense of unfinished business. They know what we have to do in order to achieve that."
UAB carries a No. 58 NCAA Net ranking into the C-USA Tournament. The Blazers are 23-8 overall and are certainly worthy of NIT consideration if the Blazers don't win the conference tournament. However, there are few guarantees this time of the year.
"You understand the platform. You understand that your next loss could be your last," Kennedy said. "This team, just based on our numbers, has put itself in position to play in the postseason. Our goal is obviously to win three in three (in Frisco). The next time you lose could be the last time. With that is going to come a lot of pressure."
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