Coming off a season of countless broken records, winning streaks, and late disappointments, expectations will be through the roof for the 2017 UAB men’s basketball team. Despite the changes within the coaching staff, Gene Bartow’s arena will feature many of the familiar faces that have brought recent success to the Southside.
Sighs of relief could be heard around Birmingham when former assistant head coach Robert Ehsan was named the sixth UAB men’s head basketball coach since 1979. Continuity is the life blood of collegiate team sports. Ehsan’s hiring kept every single scholarship player and verbally committed recruit in place. The Haase to Ehsan transfer was one of the most seamless coaching changes I can recall, and there’s no doubt the program will be better for it.
With the roster returning for the Blazers in 2017, it should be plug-and-play.
In addition to the 12 returning players, Coach Ehsan and staff will be adding incoming freshman Nate Darling (Dematha Catholic, SG) and Javian Williams (Woodlawn, SG). The 2016-17 roster will be one of the most experienced and deepest to ever take the court for UAB. Three of the five seniors are four-year program players (Watts, Mehinti, Madison) and this will be Hakeem Baxter’s fourth Division 1 season (third with UAB). Dirk Williams will be playing in his second season with UAB after cutting his teeth at one of the top junior colleges in the country his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Complementing the five seniors are five juniors who have been with UAB since they were freshman and will likely go down as one of the program’s most herald classes.
Topping off the deep roster are two sophomores who are far from your typical underclassmen. The big Frenchman Thomas Smallwood is 21 years old and has overseas semi-pro experience in France. Southern Illinois transfer Deion Lavender sat out last season but was able to gain strides physically under former strength coach Cory Schlesinger and learn the schemes in day-to-day practices.
It’s extremely rare to find a program in the current college basketball landscape with five seniors and five juniors that will likely be the first 10 in the rotation. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. This upcoming season should be the coming out party of the Super Sophomores Ver. 2.0. Smallwood and Lavender came to Birmingham to play, and I believe that have the talent. The two incoming freshman will certainly be fighting for playing time as well.
Hakeem Baxter ¦ 0
The hard nosed defending Woodstock native has averaged more than 24 minutes and started nearly every game during his two seasons with the Blazers. During his freshman season at UMES, Hak was their go-to guy offensively. He attempted 80 more shots his freshman season than he did this past with UAB. Initially I believe Haase brought Baxter in to be a contributor on both sides of the ball. However, shots didn’t fall early in his sophomore season for the Blazers and as the season went on his role became that of a lock down defender.
Going into his senior season, I’d like to see Baxter’s defense take the next step. Ranking fifth on the team in steals when primarily guarding off the ball must improve. Baxter has all the physical traits to be a high level Division 1 defender, but he needs to develop more of a knack for upsetting passing lanes. I like his size and leaping abilities against guards and smaller forwards, which he’ll see a lot of in Conference USA. Baxter is an offseason away from developing into an all conference defender, and I believe that’s what Ehsan will expect out of him.
Denzell Watts ¦ 1
Watts is a player every coach loves to have on their team. He’s devoted himself to the program since day one as a freshman, regardless of playing time. In times of need (Iowa State game), he has stepped up and performed at a high level. Denzell knows his strong suits and he imposes them on his defender without hesitation.
Offensively teams can’t help but underestimate the guard trapped in a fullback’s body. His unconventional shooting stroke is off putting to purist and opposing coaches scouting, but it’s consistent and pretty darn accurate. Over the years Watts has developed into one of the best scoring guards in the paint coming off the bench. His token tear drop shot is the perfect compliment to his steady three-pointer. Watts brings consistency and maturity, which are priceless characteristics for Ehsan to have in a bench contributor. I can think of 10 CUSA schools right now that he’d start for as point guard. Players like Denzell Watts are what championship teams are built from.
Dirk Williams ¦ 11
At the Division 1 basketball level, Williams virtually has no deficiencies. He has it all. If Dirk became an immediately eligible transfer tomorrow his list of suitors would be riddled with blue bloods. Enjoy his time here Blazer fans. He’s special.
Dirk will most certainly take departing Robert Brown’s spot in the starting line up without the team missing a beat. At 18.9 minutes per game, expect that average to sky rocket to 25 per game or more.
Where I think Dirk could take his game to the next level is his defense. He by no means is a slouch defensively having blocked 17 shots last year and pulling down 92 defensive rebounds, just one shy of Tosin Mehinti. Dirk is blessed with elite length and footwork, and he can guard the one to the four effectively. I’m of the camp that you don’t need to be built like Lebron James to be an elite defender. It wouldn’t hurt for Dirk to put on some muscle in the offseason, but what he needs more than anything is conditioning and reps. I’d be shocked if he isn’t a first team all conference player next season.
Tosin Mehinti ¦ 21
For various reasons, Tosin’s numbers took a hit last season. I don’t want to rattle off all the statistical categories because I’m not here to bash Tosin, but more or less define what his role has become. The rise of William Lee has caused Tosin to adapt his role on the team from his sophomore season to his junior. Lee is an elite shot blocker, which often times leaves Tosin in relief of Lee’s rebounding void and defensive duties.
It’s a double-edged sword really. We love the highlight Lee blocks, but it can often times leave UAB with one less defensive rebounder. Rebounding is where I believe Tosin needs to improve the most considering both Cokley and Lee brought down more than 50 boards than he did last season.
I saw the biggest improvement in Tosin’s game this past season offensively – particularly in the mid-range. He’s developed a pretty decent shot with nice arc and touch when squared up to the basket. However, through three seasons we still haven’t seem him break through in his back to the basket post game. He struggles with the entry pass in traffic, which is putting him a half step or more behind the defender(s) who collapse on him when he fumbles with the pass. If his hands can get a little softer he could have a break through senior season.
Tyler Madison ¦ 22
Much like Denzell Watts, Madison is a day one guy who brings it 100 percent whether it’s in practice or in the game. With the influx of talent that came in a class after his, minutes became really hard to come by his junior season. As a sophomore he averaged 17.2minutes per game, but as the heralded freshman class grew a year older he found himself deep into the lineup his junior season.
Despite his limited minutes, Madison is an instant spark plug the moment he steps onto the court. He is often tasked with defending a larger four or a five, which can cause him to get into foul trouble. A foul liability or not, there is no question he can set the tone. Ehsan has a wealth of high quality power forwards to choose from, but there is no doubt that Tyler Madison can provide as much energy or more as any of them. It’s not likely the senior will be asked to contribute more than he has thus far offensively, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see his minutes increased strictly in result of his heart and effort.
Nick Norton ¦ 2
During the Haase era, I cannot think of a player who has made as drastic a physical transformation as Norton did from his freshman to sophomore season. Norton was thrust into the starting point guard position as a freshman, and though he might have mentally been ready, he was far from built for battle.
I look back to UAB’s game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in 2014 against UCLA and I bookmark that as Nick Norton’s transition into the big show. Donning a freshly shaved head, the 5-foot-10, undersized guard led the team in points with 17 and hit 5 three-pointers. UAB got bullied in all three of their games, but Nick Norton came back to Alabama with respect from his peers.
The 2016 version of Nick Norton has a few more trophies on the shelf, and is seasoned and hungry for another NCAA run. UAB’s win over Iowa St. is likely bitter sweet for the Illinoisan due to the fact he was unable to contribute significant minutes because of illness. Norton’s time will come, and little will need to be done to his game. The junior’s assist-to-turnover ratio was among the nation’s best last season, and his three-point shooting should keep defenses honest after hitting 59 in both his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Chris Cokley ¦ 3
Ask Bruce Pearl how good Chris Cokley is. The Savannah native baptized Pearl’s “bigs” in last seasons opener with 25 points and 12 rebounds off the bench. Despite the loss, a beast was born. Per Kenpom.com, Cokley was the man in pre-conference play garnering the site’s MVP honor in seven of the 13 games.
Cokley had some decent offers from a couple SEC schools coming out of high school, and for whatever reason those cooled and Haase and Co. snatched him up. Like Norton, Cokley took full advantage of his freshman to sophomore offseason training. The young bull put on 30 pounds without losing a bit of his touch or step. Cokley’s first move when handling the ball in the paint is lightning fast and he uses the backboard effectively.
If Chris could develop a consistent mid-range game his ceiling is limitless. His jump shot has little lift, but his form is sufficient. Cokley’s most impressive skill other than his touch may be his fast break handle. On many occasions last year the forward has stolen errant passes in the opposing half court, taken the ball himself and finished at the basket.
William Lee ¦ 34
UAB’s most prized recruit in ages has most certainly lived up to the bill. Lee started slow coming into his freshman season recovering from pre-season surgeries, but showed in March in the NCAA tournament that he is the real deal.
Because of Cokley’s offensive dominance in the first half of last season, Lee found himself with plenty of room to operate offensively. In conference play Lee averaged 12.5 points per game mixing in dribble drive buckets in the paint and showcasing his range with consistent three-point shooting. Sure, his post game could be better and I’d expect him to work on that some this off season.
Blazer fans were thrilled to see William Lee’s offensive game flourish, but that’s not what we’ll remember most about his break out sophomore season…
IT WAS THE BLOCK PARTY
At seasons end William tallied an impressive 95 blocks, which was good for sixth in the nation behind Oregon’s Chris Boucher’s 106. Lee has 146 career blocks through two seasons, which puts him a little over half way to Alan Ogg’s career record of 266. If he can average 60 or more the next two seasons than he’ll forever be known as the king of Blockingham.
Lewis Sullivan ¦ 35
I had some concerns that Lew would get lost in the mix coming into last season after seeing limited minutes his freshman year. At times early in his freshman season Sullivan would camp out on the perimeter looking for his three-point shot. When the shots didn’t fall, Sullivan found himself on the bench for much of the remainder of his freshman year.
The entire junior class made enormous strides physically last summer in the off season, and Lewis was no exception. The Hazel Green native put on some bulk and took his game back to what made him the 6A player of the year in 2013. Lewis attempted just 3 three-point shots all last season as his interior game came alive. His 22 point showing at Troy last November was his coming out party, and for the remainder of the season he became a force in the paint off the bench. I’m not sure if they keep up with and-ones, but it sure seemed like Sullivan had the most of the team last season with his physical play among the trees.
Deion Lavender ¦ 5
Do not sleep on Deion Lavender. I strongly feel that he will be this year’s Dirk Williams as far as seemingly coming out of no where and making an immediate impact. As a freshman Lavender became a key player for Southern Illinois in the Missouri Valley Conference. Deion scored in double figures nine times as a freshman, including a stretch of six straight games.
Lavender falls into a two guard classification that is as crowded as any position in the game. He’s 6-foot-2 and plays pretty similarly to Robert Brown, but doesn’t have his height or length. From the little film I’ve found on Deion, he uses his first step quickness really well and his handle is fantastic.
I was unable to find any highlights from his freshman season at SIU. This extremely low quality recruiting highlight video from 2014 can fill the void for now.
Thomas Smallwood ¦ 33
Birmingham loves Thomas Smallwood. I’m convinced his time at UAB will be special on the court regardless of him mostly playing trash time minutes last season. Smallwood is going into his sophomore season as a 21 year old with a true inside and out big man game. His ceiling, in my opinion, is as high as any player’s on this team.
I’m not going to sit here and say Smallwood will end up in the NBA, but I will say he has built his skill set to fit the mold of what the modern big man is at the highest level. His three-point shot is consistent, and his interior game is about what you’d expect for a guy who has seen limited Division 1 minutes. An offseason of development could put Smallwood in a position to see much more playing time this season. If this is the case, I feel confident the Blazer faithful will be happy.