2009-'10 Conference USA Preview Issue: Alabama-Birmingham

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IOctober 21, 2009

We’ll start this off by acknowledging that Mike Davis is a good coach. He played under C. M. Newton and Wimp Sanderson at Alabama and coached under Bob Knight at Indiana—three living legends of college basketball.


Davis authored the biggest single-season improvement in victories in UAB history (from 15 his first year to 23 his second). He is a proven recruiter who’s bringing in a class of four freshmen, a JUCO transfer, and a D-I transfer who is eligible after sitting out last year.


But I’m here to tell you that in 2009-’10, there are no rabbits to pull out of his hat. The Blazers are going to struggle.


Gone are more than 90 percent of the Blazers’ points and rebounds from a season ago.


Paul Delaney III, Lawrence Kinnard, and Robert Vaden—who were 2008 All-Conference USA selections—have moved on. Delaney & Vaden were second team All-CUSA, and Kinnard was tabbed for the third team.


Delaney blossomed into a star, responsible for 16.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, and 3.5 apg. When Kinnard departed, he took 14 points and 9.2 rebounds per contest (and 13 double-doubles) with him. Swingman Vaden’s 17.6 ppg, 4.9 rbg and 2.1 apg will be missed.


Not to be overlooked, however, were the contributions from Channing Toney, the other starting guard who was the consummate “glue guy” that all good teams have. He tied with Delaney for third on the team in three-pointers made at 22, behind only Vaden (112) and Kinnard (45) on the team.


After all of the dissension and injuries that befell UAB, leaving the team with just nine players total over the last 24 games (and a mere five scholarship holders), Mike Davis somehow piloted the Blazers to a 22-12 season, with a first round loss to Notre Dame in the NIT. It marked the team’s sixth postseason appearance in seven years.


Don’t expect anything close to that this year, due to the heavy losses in personnel that were suffered. It might take Davis another year or two of recruiting to get the cupboard filled once more.


One of the team leaders is probably going to be 6’8”, 230-pound senior forward Howard Crawford, a native Alabamian who has been overshadowed by the stars he was recruited to support. After scoring 7.9 ppg and contributing 3.5 rpg, he provides leadership and perhaps the only proven quantity on this edition of the Blazers—for better or for worse.


Elijah Millsap, a muscular (6’6”, 211) guard who sat out last year after transferring to UAB from Louisiana-Lafayette, showed great promise two years ago by averaging 9.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per outing while starting 22-of-30 contests as a sophomore. He was Sun Belt Freshman of the Year in 2007-‘08.


Joining them in the lineup will be the only other starter returning from last year: point guard Aaron Johnson (pictured), a jitterbug who’s short in stature (5’8”, 175) but incredibly quick, rugged and adept at penetrating the lane. His 3.6 ppg & apg must each rise dramatically.


Where’s the beef? Crawford wasn’t much of a banger last year, yet no one who is coming in looks to provide interior size and toughness. The last returning letter winner, sophomore forward Cameron Moore, is thin at 6’9”, 205 but looks to be in line to start. He led the team in field goal percentage (.574) in limited action.


Moore will be challenged for minutes by Anthony Criswell, who is pretty much the same player, only thinner and a freshman. Criswell averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds a game and was named All-State in Oklahoma; he will need to add weight and strength if he wants to be a factor.


Scouts who got out to Hampton Roads, VA came away saying great things about Ovie Soko from London, England, who came to this country via a foreign exchange program. The 6’8”, 215-pound live body was a power forward originally but is going to play small forward on the next level. He averaged 14.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 4 apg, and 1 block per game.


Only having two years of American basketball competition under his belt hurts his cause.


The most promising signees for Mike Davis were in the backcourt: Dexter Fields, Jamarr Sanders, and Robert Williams.


Fields is a smallish (6’2”, 190) combo guard out of Orlando, FL. An accomplished scorer and a good rebounder for his size (17.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg), he’s not a true point but is talented enough to earn minutes for himself in the rotation. UAB beat out Alabama, Central Florida, Florida International, and LSU (among others) for his services.


Sanders, born in nearby Montgomery, AL, spent two years refining his craft at Northwest Florida State College, averaging 18.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg and 4.7 apg. He’s got good size (6’4”, 200), great shooting ability (53 percent overall, and 44 percent from deep), is physical, and is expected to see minutes at both guard positions and perhaps even at small forward.


Williams is an intriguing two-guard from Greeneville, MS. He is a very physical guard with good size, (6’4”, 200) who dominated other players from his area (20.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per contest) but is relatively untested and unknown on a national level.


All-in-all, it makes for an enticing influx of ballers...but not necessarily a winning one. Anything close to a winning season will be an accomplishment. Next year, they could be formidable.