With the de facto first half of the season in the rear view mirror, we’ll take some time to digest what we’ve seen from UAB so far and what we can expect going forward.
We are 13 games into the 2017-18 season, which is not quite the halfway point but is still a pretty solid sample size to evaluate the team. While the Blazers have made some improvement in some aspects, they’ve also had some short comings and head scratching performances.
Going into the season we all knew this was going to be a very weak non-conference schedule. Now that nearly every team is about to start conference play we can confirm that UAB’s schedule is the 15th easiest in the country and the weakest in Conference USA. The win over Memphis (163) on paper is considered the best, and the loss to Richmond (232) the worst. For some perspective, UAB hadn’t lost a sub-200 non-conference game since November 2014.
I’m not trying to bash UAB and convince you all that this is a mediocre team who has under performed thus far. The fact of the matter is this is one of the deepest and most offensively talented teams we’ve had, but that hasn’t exactly translated to wins against good competition.
Nevertheless, you’d much rather have the talent in place to win games and hope they eventually come to form rather than being void of talent and hoping for a miracle each game. At least that’s the story I’m sticking with.
Where’s William Lee?
From my vantage point I think one of the biggest gripes I’ve seen from UAB fans is the performance of William Lee this season. I came to his defense weeks back in an article that stated he didn’t have to be the teams leading scorer for UAB to be a great team — I still stand by that statement. However, in looking over these 13 games I’ve found some troubling statistics and trends that are worth pointing out.
Here are some of the outlying ones:
- His 300 minutes played are sixth most on the team
- Perry, Darling, Bryant, and Cokley have all scored more points
- He has seven more personal fouls this season despite playing 51 less minutes (13 games)
- He has fouled out twice this season and did so only twice in the last three seasons combined
So what’s the deal? Why has his production and performance taken a dip? In my research I’ve narrowed it down to two main issues.
- More Scoring Options — Last season Lee led the team in points per game, total points, and free throws attempted. This season through 13 games he isn’t in the top four in any of those categories. That’s staggering to think about, but you have to consider the influx of offensive options (Bryant, Jalen, Sullivan, Norton) that he didn’t have to sacrifice attempts to last season. I think UAB can be a great team with Lee not scoring in double-digits, but we are not taking advantage of him being aggressive and attacking the rim. If their is one stat I’d like to see him improve on going forward it is his free throw rate. He is a miss-match for most teams, and living behind the 3-point line is a welcomed sight to our opponents.
- The Absence of Tosin Mehinti — The prior three seasons Lee had predominately played his more natural position at the four. This season he is playing the five 20 percent of the time, which is a huge jump from the 6 percent last season. Lee is a fantastic defender but specifically a fantastic weak side help defender. The lions share of his blocks have come from his weak side defensive help. I think Ehsan is in a bit of a pickle deciding who to put in the most vulnerable positions defensively that could lead to foul trouble. Since Cokley is scoring at will and has only had more than two fouls once this season, it’s tough to argue with the scheme they have in place.
I believe we’re still destined to see some of those William Lee moments that leave you thinking he is one of the all-time greats to play at UAB. How he performs from here on out is in the staff’s hands and in is own mind.
A Top Heavy Conference USA Looms
Conference USA is never going to be a good league from top to bottom. It’s just not going to happen given the amount of teams and for some their commitment to basketball. The conference could, however, have some really solid teams towards the top that could possibly yield a two bid scenario, but that’s still hard to imagine considering what we’ve seen since realignment.
This season I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the depth from 1-6. I believe there is not a clear outlier like there was with Middle Tennessee last season. This group can beat each other on any given night, but that isn’t to say we wouldn’t still see a 16 or 17 win champ — it wouldn’t shock me in the least.
Of course I’m a homer, but I think UAB has the deepest roster, Middle Tennessee has the best coaching and are the most confident, and Old Dominion is going to be the toughest battle night in and night out. After those three, Louisiana Tech supposedly dismissed one of their top guards and Marshall is such a wild card that I’m sure they’ll win their share of games they aren’t supposed to.
For the first time since realignment UAB has Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, and WKU all twice. Obviously UAB is in no position to contend for an at-large bid, so this means their path to the league title is the hardest it’s ever been. UAB only gets the Florida duo once and it’s on the road.
If you forced me to predict how I think UAB will perform in conference play I’d say they have as good a chance as any of the contenders if they play to their potential. If Lee has a second coming and stays on the court more consistently, I really believe this team could do some special things. Only time will tell, and Saturday will be an early litmus test.