When the NCAA tournament concluded its opening weekend, there remained much debate about which team was best-positioned for a championship run.
But on another issue, the nation's fans seemed to agree. The most entertaining team? No question: The UAB Blazers. UAB's freewheeling style hit on all cylinders in the opening round with a 102-100 win over Washington. The Blazers followed that up with a heart-stopping 76-75 upset of No. 1-seeded Kentucky to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1982 and earn their first appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
UAB coach Mike Anderson, the former Arkansas assistant, already has produced a Sweet 16 team and another that fell one victory short of the NIT's final four. Not bad for a man who had been passed over for other openings before attempting to reverse the slide of Blazer basketball.
People have noticed. Anderson, a Birmingham native, interviewed for the openings at Auburn and Miami before signing a new five-year contract that doubled his annual base salary to $600,000. "UAB is where I want to be," Anderson said. "Because I am from [Birmingham], it just makes it that much more special."
With a crowd-pleasing style and success that hadn't been seen since the early days of the Gene Bartow era, the Blazers have become the team fans want to watch.
FRONTCOURTJunior forward Demario Eddins is not a conventional frontcourt player. That doesn't matter. He's playing in a system that best utilizes his skills -- running the floor, passing, attacking to the hoop and playing tenacious defense.
Eddins is the team's top returning rebounder, but that burden might be shifted to a posse of teammates. Last season, the Blazers were outrebounded 13 times in C-USA games and by an average of five boards overall. Anderson admits it's living on the edge to consistently surrender possessions.
The Blazers will look to forward Marques Lewis, a beefy spot performer, and Ernest Little for inside help. Brandon Tobias likely will see increased duty. Anderson likes the potential of freshman power forward Frank Holmes.
BACKCOURTHave you tried to sleep while a buzzing insect was nearby? Have you attempted to walk with a tiny pebble stuck in your shoe? Then you have the basic idea of what it's like to face UAB junior point guard Carldell "Squeaky" Johnson. After working into the starting lineup, Johnson made a huge impact. He led the nation in assist/turnover ratio (3.9) for players with 50 or more assists. In his final 20 games, Johnson had 137 assists (6.9 average) and just 35 turnovers. He had 22 games in which he registered one or zero turnovers. With Johnson at the wheel, the Blazers were 16-5.
But if you think Johnson has a sixth sense for making big plays, there's double trouble in twin senior guards Ronell and Donell Taylor. They work in tandem for spectacular plays, including the pass-and-dunk against Kentucky in which Ronell whipped a blind over-the-head full-court toss to a streaking Donell.
Risky? Not in Anderson's mind. "He [Anderson] knows we're not going to make every play," Ronell said. "He might get on you when you make a bad play, but he also wants you to put that in one ear and out the other."
The Blazers will rely on a host of others in the backcourt -- including Richard Jones, Derrick Broom, junior college transfer Marvett McDonald and freshman Paul Delaney. The more, the merrier.
FINAL ANALYSISIt hardly seems to matter that UAB lacks an effective inside game. The Blazers succeed by imposing their style on opponents. With a roster of active hands and quick feet, the Blazers led C-USA in assists, steals and turnover margin.
Two seasons into his head coaching career, Anderson already has built an enviable reputation for his program. But there's rarely time to savor that accomplishment. In keeping with the Blazers' on-court personality, there's only one way to enter another season -- full speed ahead to another run at the C-USA title.