BIRMINGHAM — UAB’s 2017 Conference USA men’s basketball schedule has been released, and if you’re like me it couldn’t have come at a better time. With the absence of football, UAB sports related news has been extremely sparse since June.
This season’s 18 game schedule features three road games to begin conference play, book-ended by three home games. In UAB’s 20 previous years in Conference USA, they’ve never begun conference play with three consecutive road games.
The three consecutive road games at the beginning of the schedule is the obvious elephant in the room. Combine that phenomenon with one more road game (5) than in last year’s January schedule and the Blazer’s have themselves a tough start.
Middle Tennessee (Away) — The Blazer’s are currently on a 5-game win streak over the Blue Raiders. Middle’s last win over UAB was in March of 2014 at Bartow Arena.
Coach Davis’ 2016-17 team will look much different than the bracket busting squad of last season. Seniors Buford, Raymond, and Harris all moved on and all three were significant contributors having appeared in all 35 games last season (MTSU 2015-16 Stats).
I won’t dig too much into the 2016-17 roster given that I’ll break down every team player-by-player in my Conference USA preview in a couple of months. Despite the departures of three seniors, the cupboard is far from bare in Murfreesboro. Soon to be senior Reggie Upshaw will be a popular pick for Conference USA player of the year, and Giddy Potts will be a shoe in for first team.
North Texas (Away) — UAB has never won in Denton. Until last year’s win over North Texas in Bartow Arena, the Blazers were 0-2 in Conference USA play against the Mean Green. This will be the fourth time these two teams have met as Conference USA members with three of the four taking place in Denton.
I’m confident in saying that North Texas will be much better than their 7-11 Conference USA finish last season. The Mean Green will return all three of their double-digit scorers and lose only one contributing senior. Jeremy Combs will be a junior and likely pre-season Conference USA first team.
Rice (Away) — I really, really like this Rice team. This will be the Owl’s best squad since the Morris Almond days over a decade ago. Sophomore Marcus Evans is going to be a handful this year (not to say he wasn’t last season). Pairing Evans with senior Marcus Jackson who missed all of last year due to injury will give UAB assistant’s nightmares with just a few days to scout. Honestly I can’t think of a worst spot for UAB to have to play Rice. Middle and North Texas are extremely physical and this will be the Blazers third road game in six days.
Houston, Rice will be a problem.
Western Kentucky (Home) — This will be an interesting game. The UAB team that lost to WKU in the Conference USA tournament will be nearly identical to this year’s team, and the WKU squad will look drastically different. Due to suspensions, a coaching change, and graduating seniors only Ben Lawson and Justin Johnson will be returning from those who contributed in last year’s win over the Blazers.
New head coach Rick Stansbury is wasting little time rebuilding the Hilltoppers. He’ll have the luxury of a year older Justin Johnson, who gave UAB fits, and a veteran senior big man in Ben Lawson. I’d expect a solid WKU squad for the first Conference USA home game.
Marshall (Home) — Like UAB, Marshall is losing just one starter — James Kelly. If you paid any attention at all to Marshall last season you’d know he was arguably the most important single piece to any of the Conference USA teams. Coach D’Antoni will have to find a way to fill Kelly’s 20 points per game if he wants to continue leading Conference USA in points with 86 per game last season.
The Herd might take a step back initially with Kelly’s departure, but I fully expect them to be a top 5 or 6 Conference USA team next season.
Florida Atlantic (Away) — FAU is tough to gauge this year. They are losing a couple of key seniors, but they have some solid young players returning. The Owls finished next to last in the conference last year, and this year could be more of the same. Coach Curry did some nice things with his team beating La Tech and Charlotte at home in January.
Though this game is away for UAB, I wouldn’t expect a close game like last year’s finale that was likely a result of looking ahead to the Conference USA tournament.
Florida International (Away) — You can say a lot of the same things about FIU that I’ve said about FAU going into next season. The Panthers will surely miss senior center Adrian Diaz who seemingly broke every school defensive record. The Blazers blew out FIU in Miami last year, and I’d expect more of the same next season.
Louisiana Tech (Home) — For the second straight year Coach Konkol is left with filling the shoes of an all-time Bulldog great. Alex Hamilton leaves La Tech as the winningest Bulldog in the program history and seemingly carried last year’s squad on his back some nights. Senior Erik McCree is left with the task of captaining the ship after two key contributors transferred after last season.
Southern Miss (Home) — Last year’s double overtime win over Southern Miss on the road was one of the strangest I’ve witnessed in some time. On paper, UAB should have won convincingly. Coach Doc Sadler did a pretty darn good job last season given the NCAA restrictions they had incurred – and will continue to incur.
The Golden Eagles lose Kourtlin Jackson who dropped 40 at Marshall in their last game of the season. Once again UAB should easily win this game, but, with Southern miss and Doc Sadler, you never know.
UTEP (Away) — We’ve reached the second month of conference play and it kicks off with what I believe will be one of UAB’s toughest Conference USA games of the season. The Miners are loaded with experienced guards, and towards the end of last season Coach Floyd leaned on them heavily. Also, rising sophomore Terry Winn will be one to keep an eye on next season.
The Blazer juniors have never won in El Paso, and this will be their last chance. UAB ran away from the Miners last year in Birmingham, but I would expect another classic in West Texas this season.
UTSA (Away) — The Roadrunners are in great hands with new head coach and former Oklahoma assistant, Steve Henson. Coach Lon Kruger’s right hand man shaped former Sooners like Buddy Hield and Isiah Cousins.
Coach Henson’s roster is pretty fluid at the moment. He’ll be losing the Roadrunner’s best player over the last few years, Ryan Bowie. I’m not sure how good a team UTSA will put on the court next season, but I trust they’ll be very competitive under their new coach.
Charlotte (Home) — Along with Rice, I put Charlotte in the category of teams who can beat any top conference team on any given night. Coach Mark Price put a rag-tag group of guys on the court last year and dang near won double-digit conference games. Losing big man Joseph Uchebo will hurt, but Price is loaded with young talent.
Given this game is at Bartow, UAB will likely be favored heavily. However, the 49ers could very well catch the Blazers looking forward at what will be an extremely difficult remaining February schedule.
Old Dominion (Home) — Good luck predicting how the Monarchs will look next season. They lose program cornerstones in Trey Freeman and Aaron Bacote, but gain a second Stith brother with B.J. becoming eligible and joining his brother Brandan. ODU will once again have a team loaded with 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-7 guys that you’ll want no business meeting down on the block.
If Coach Jeff Jones can find some consistent and reliable guard play, who knows, ODU could be right back in the Confernce USA tournament championship game. Looking at their roster as it stands in mid-July, I’m not going to bet on it and my money will be on UAB in this game at Bartow.
Marshall (Away) — The Herd have developed quite the home court advantage since Dan D’Antoni’s arrival. Depending on how Marshall adapts to losing Kelly, this game could be a virtual toss-up.
Western Kentucky (Away) — The Blazers owe the Tops for ending their win streak in Diddle Arena last season. Hopefully under Coach Stansbury WKU can return back to their hay day of packing out the stands for home games. UAB will be looking for payback on the road where the Blazers won a record 10 games last season.
Middle Tennessee (Home) — I fully expect this to be a match-up of top 4 Conference USA teams in late February. By this time of the season Coach Davis will have his team competing at a very high level no matter who they’ve lost from the prior year.
Florida Atlantic (Home) — UAB hasn’t had a competitive game against Florida Atlantic in Bartow Arena since the Owls joined Conference USA. Barring FAU brings in some studs next season, this game will likely stay on that trend.
Florida International (Home) — FIU played the Blazers very close last year in Birmingham. Being the last game of the season, UAB will have to stay focused at home and not look ahead to the Conference USA tournament taking place down the street the following week.