First in a series arguing the nation’s best mid-major program this season.
When looking at the headline to this story, your immediate thoughts on the best mid-major program out there is probably Gonzaga or maybe even Butler. First off, I would argue that Gonzaga is no longer a mid-major – just like Boise State really isn’t in football.
And while Butler is a fine team and currently ranked, I would argue that the title for best mid-major at this point of the season comes down UAB. So stash the Blazers in the back of your minds when it comes NCAA Tournament time and you are pondering a long-shot Final Four bet a la George Mason a few years ago.
UAB was No. 24 in the RPI Ratings entering this week and is 18-2 (only five teams in the country have a better record), having already beaten teams like Cincinnati, Butler and Tulsa. The Blazers’ two losses are quite acceptable: on the road at Kent State (which could win the MAC) and Virginia (which is surprisingly among the ACC leaders). Overall, UAB has easily the best non-conference resume of any Conference USA team, and it is the lone team unbeaten in conference play.
The Blazers are coached by Mike Davis, the former Indiana coach. Their star is junior guard Elijah Millsap, who leads the team by averaging 16.6 points and 9.6 rebounds. He is also pacing C-USA in double-doubles. Millsap is the younger brother of the Utah Jazz’s Paul Millsap and transferred from Louisiana Lafayette after the 2007-08 season – thus having to sit out last year.
The Blazers are a stellar defensive team, holding the opposition to 59.4 points a game, which leads C-USA, and have held 16 of their 20 opponents to 64 points or below and 13 of the 20 to below 60 points. Offensively they can leave a bit to be desired, relying heavily on Millsap.
According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, C-USA has a 70 percent chance of getting two NCAA bids this season, something the conference rarely did when Memphis was dominating. And the Blazers are all but a lock to get in. If UAB wins a tough game against UTEP on Saturday, it will have completed an unbeaten January for the first team since 1991.
It’s unlikely the Blazers finish the season unbeaten in the conference. They still have Memphis and UTEP twice, but you have to like UAB’s chances in those two home games as it has won 11 in a row at Bartow Arena.
How is UAB as a betting option? Not great – this team does tend to play close games, having won by two points or less in five of its past seven outings. It is 10-8 ATS overall and 5-4 ATS at home. But because the Blazers play such good defense, 10 of their 13 decisions (where a total was posted) have gone 'under' the number.
The Blazers' line value comes in the form as a home favorite of five points or less and road underdogs of five points or more - neither will be a regular occurrence and offensively they are capable of scoring. Understanding that the current aberration in the number of UNDER the total wins the team has should begin to approach the mean is important. So until the NCAA Selection Committee sketches out the Big Dance brackets, just watching and enjoying the Blazers' skilled play is your best bet.