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The Best Basketball Team in Alabama

...plays in Birmingham, not the SEC, which is one reason UNC alum Jeff Lebo is out of a job in Auburn. Lebo won't be much help in scouting the Blazers – the two didn't meet – but there are plenty of folks around who can. UAB was one of the three C-USA teams near the top of the conference but dwarfed by the juggernaut that was UTEP this season. They were 0-5 against the Miners, Memphis, and Marshall, but didn't lose to the rest of the conference. They have impressive wins over Butler, Cincinnati, and N.C. State, and their nine-point loss to Virginia is less embarrassing than UNC's; how they pull it off?

Defense, primarily. UAB was second only to UTEP in points per possession allowed in conference play, and have continued that style of play in the NIT holding their opponents to 49 and 52 points, respectively. They play a slowed-down game, denying opponents good shots and then dominating the defensive boards. And they do it with an undersized team consisting of a front line that stands at 6'8" (Howard Crawford) and 6'6" (Elijah Millsap). And Mishap has a higher defensive rebounding percentage than anyone in the ACC. Birmingham wants to go toe-to-toe with UNC on the inside, which is exactly what the Heels want as well. If they can't control the boards with Thompson, Zeller, Henson, and Wear, they're going to get bounced quickly, and deservingly so. Birmingham completely shut down Tracy Smith this weekend, and although UNC has more than one interior threat, they can't fall into the same trap.

The nice thing, however, is that after two games of three-launching madness, Carolina faces a team that will at least make an effort to work it inside. And the offense isn't particularly sparking, of late. In conference there were only three teams with worse points per possession, and the Blazers don't shoot the ball particularly well. They get a lot of second chance opportunities, however, so again the Heels are going to have to control the boards.

There's been a fair amount of chatter about UAB's home crowd, but I wouldn't take that to be a concern. Ignoring the mostly empty arena pictured above and assuming the stands will be packed, well, so what? This team has won at State, at Wake, and this weekend in Starksville. And if you think being in Cameron was the root of Carolina's rout by Duke, you haven't been watching this team. Everybody gets it up for Carolina. The question is, will this team be up for their first three game winning streak of the calendar year? Winner heads to New York, where the Heels have already been once this year. Here's hoping for a return trip.

UPDATE: I wrote that introductory paragraph without realizing that Lebo has already been hired at East Carolina. So next year he will have a great scouting report of UAB. Hopefully, it will be of no use to the Heels. (Also expect ECU to improve their chances of appearing on UNC's basketball schedule. Roy Williams likes promoting UNC alums.)