UAB Basketball Gives Birmingham a Reason to Smile

Amidst the pain of losing the football program, the UAB Blazers' men's basketball program has given the people of Birmingham, AL, and the students and faculty of UAB a reason to smile. (Source: Matt Almond - AL.com)
Amidst the pain of losing the football program, the UAB Blazers’ men’s basketball program has given the people of Birmingham, AL, and the students and faculty of UAB a reason to smile. (Source: Matt Almond – AL.com)

Just a few short months ago, the University of Alabama – Birmingham was covered with a large, dark cloud that looked to remain for a while. With so much controversy surrounding the elimination of the school’s football program, the Blazers weren’t in a good situation in the eye of the public, especially in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. The dismissal of the football program left a sour taste in the mouths of many, and gave the school a black-eye across the NCAA. It was questioned as to whether or not the school would remain a part of the Conference USA, as they didn’t meet the requirements for the conference due to the number of teams.

Little did we know, there was a light at the end of the tunnel that would surely ease the pain.

Enter the men’s basketball program, who would assume the role of hero. The men’s basketball team assumed the role of Robin Hood, as they would go on a run to steal an NCAA Tournament berth from the “rich” programs in the conference, and give it to the “poor” fans of the Blazers who were simply looking for a reason to fall in love with the hometown UAB Blazers once again.

The day President Watts cancelled the football program was tough for everyone, as evident by the football team hugging one another after a meeting with Watts. (Source: WBRC Video)
The day President Watts cancelled the football program was tough for everyone, as evident by the football team hugging one another after a meeting with Watts. (Source: WBRC Video)

Back in December of 2014, it looked as though there wasn’t much reason to smile when it came to discussing athletics at the University of Alabama – Birmingham. The men’s basketball team was struggling in non-conference play, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The biggest blow came from President Ray Watts, and surrounded the Blazers’ football, bowling, and rifle programs.

At the start of December, Watts indicated that the football program at UAB would not continue after the 2014 season ended, citing a lack of funding to keep the program afloat. The decision sent shockwaves through the Birmingham, AL community and the NCAA community as a whole. Very rarely do you see a school cancel a major sport program like football, but that’s exactly what Watts did at UAB. The bowling and rifle teams were also cut from the athletics department.

The decision was greeted with resistance from the athletics community at UAB, and the football team more specifically. Players lashed out at Watts for making the decision, stating that players made the decision to attend UAB for the program, and now it’s all being taken away. This decision has increased significance for the upperclassmen at the school. The seniors are graduating, but the juniors are the ones who have to deal with it the most. Due to NCAA transfer agreements, they may never play another game at the Division I level. In terms of freshmen, they now have to go through the process of selecting another school if they want to continue playing football at the Division I level, or they can stay at UAB and lose their athletic scholarship. Overall, this is not a pretty situation for the members of the teams.

However, it seems as though that President Watts didn’t take the necessary steps to try and save the program. Potential donors also raised suspicions and objected Watts’ claim that the school didn’t receive the proper funding to save the programs. Don and Marsha Hire have been long-time supporters of Blazer athletics, and the student-athlete athletic center is named in their honour. Don appeared on ESPN’s GameDay Morning after the decision was made to cut the football program, and stated that him and his wife were not approached by the school for support. Now, I’m not a genius or anything, but if a family has an athletic center named after them on campus, they most likely have some disposable income and would be more than willing to help out a school that they have donated to many times in the past.

Don and Marsha Hire weren’t the only donors to have suspicions. Many other potential donors also stated that they weren’t asked for support, which many of them would have been willing to give.

What makes things worse is the fact that the Blazers were having a respectable season on the football field. The team was 6 – 6 overall on the year, and 4 – 4 in Conference USA play. Their 6 wins on the year made the team bowl-eligible for a lower-end bowl game in December and January. However, the decision to cut the program at the end of the season hurt the team considerably. Not a single bowl game picked up the Blazers for a bowl appearance, putting the Blazers’ season to an end just like that.

Without having a bowl game to appear in, and potentially go out in a blaze of glory, the UAB football program’s existence ended just like that. This was the first time since 1995 that a Division I football program eliminated their football team (Pacific).

After the situation with the football team, the University of Alabama – Birmingham, and the Birmingham community as a whole, were looking for a reason to smile and be proud of the athletics department. Most people would turn to the basketball program in a time like this, but the Blazers’ men’s team was struggling in their own right. They hadn’t put out a strong performance in non-conference play, and looked to be an afterthought in the Conference USA before the conference portion of the schedule even started.

That’s when the Blazers turned things around, and showed everyone that this year is theirs, and they took full advantage of the opportunities put in front of them.

Entering the conference tournament, nobody expected the UAB Blazers to be the team that would be cutting down the nets, but that's exactly what happened. (Source: Matt Almond - Al.com)
Entering the conference tournament, nobody expected the UAB Blazers to be the team that would be cutting down the nets, but that’s exactly what happened. (Source: Matt Almond – Al.com)

The last time the UAB Blazers made an appearance in post-season play was back in the 2010-11 season, when the tournament expanded to 68 teams. That year, the Blazers finished with a 22 Р9 record overall, and a 12 Р4 record in conference play. They received an at-large bid into the tournament, despite losing their first game in the conference tournament to  The Blazers took on the Clemson Tigers in a play-in game for a 12-seed in the East Region, but suffered a 70 Р52 loss.

On a side note, Clemson was led by Devin Booker and Jerai Grant, while UAB was led by Jamarr Sanders and Ovie Soko.

Since that year, the Blazers have struggled to make any form of post-season play. For that matter, the team had struggled to be a relevant factor in Conference USA play up until the 2014-15 season. The two years after their NCAA Tournament appearance against Clemson, the Blazers had sub-.500 records at the end of the season. In 2013-14, the Blazers finished above .500 overall on the season, but were just 7 – 9 in conference play.

At first glance to start the season, it would look like the Blazers were going to be in for another long season. With only two seniors on their roster, in C.J. Washington and Denzel Collins, it looked as though the team was in for a bit of a down season as their plethora of younger players got experience under their belts.

To open the season, it appeared that the Blazers were indeed in trouble. UAB started the season 2 – 5, with three straight losses in the Battle 4 Atlantis to Wisconsin, Florida, and UCLA. They would win two of their next three contests, over Morehead State and a strong UNC Asheville team, but the winning ways would quickly subside. As the season progressed towards conference play, the Blazers lost their last three conference games to enter Conference USA action in a bit of a rut, and with a 4 – 9 record overall.

It turns out that all the Blazers needed to turn things around was to play conference opponents.

UAB opened conference play with a 3 – 0 record, and their season would quickly turn around. The Blazers would put together four separate winning streaks of three games in conference play, which would put them in a great position going forwards. They were never able to stretch a winning streak past three games, scattering six conference losses throughout their rather impressive showing in Conference USA action.

To make things more impressive, none of the Blazers’ conference losses came by more than nine points. As a matter of fact, five of those six losses were decided by just four points or less. Their record could have easily been better, and they could have been in the conversation for an at-large bid, but it all worked out in the end for UAB.

To close out the regular season, UAB lost back-to-back games to Florida Atlantic and Florida International, which were games they should have won. But that didn’t slow them down once the tournament started.

They were paired up with Western Kentucky in the first round of the tournament. The Blazers knocked off the Hilltoppers in the regular season, and came away with a second win to send Western Kentucky home prematurely. It was a nail-biter, but the Blazers squeaked out the 53 – 52 win. In the semi-finals, UAB took on the preseason conference favourite Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. These two teams split the season series at 1 game apiece, but the Blazers would get the last laugh. UAB knocked off the regular season champions, 72 – 62, to advance to the finals and give the people of Birmingham a glimmer of hope.

In the finals, it was a surprising final between the Blazers and the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. Both teams made surprising runs through the conference tournament, en route to the conference final. On this night, UAB wouldn’t be denied, as they scored their third win of the season over the Blue Raiders. The Blazers came away with a convincing 73 – 60 victory to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

With all of the issues surrounding the school and the football program, having the men’s basketball program advance to the NCAA Tournament is something that the university can hang their hats on and something that the city of Birmingham, Alabama can be extremely proud of.

On Selection Sunday, the UAB Blazers were awarded a 14-seed, and matched up against the 3rd-seed Iowa State Cyclones in the Round of 64. When the game tips off in Louisville, Kentucky between the Cyclones and the Blazers at 12:40pm EST on Thursday, the entire community of Birmingham, AL and the entire university will be behind the Blazers as they try to pull off the upset win.

Regardless of the outcome, the men’s basketball team was indeed the shining light that Birmingham and the University of Alabama – Birmingham needed to guide them through their rough patch of athletic issues surrounding the football program. The Blazers have nothing to lose in the NCAA Tournament, but everything to gain. The seniors get sent off on the high of making the NCAA Tournament, while the talented crop of freshmen are gaining valuable experience. They now know what it takes to make the Big Dance, and will come back hungrier than ever next season as they strive to make it back-to-back appearances.

The success of the Blazers’ men’s basketball program this season is one of those feel-good stories that we can’t get enough of in the sporting world. I’m willing to bet that people will be pulling for the Blazers to make a little more noise in the tournament.

Birmingham now has a reason to be proud of the Blazers again, and it’s all starts with the men’s basketball program!

– T.B.