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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Blazers Pace Themselves to Win It All

Alabama Birmingham gets noticed in the Sweet 16, but taking the NCAA title with a fast and furious style is the ultimate goal.

March 26, 2004|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — Alabama Birmingham is trying to act as if it belongs, but for a program making its first Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1982, that's easier said than done.

The distractions -- interviews for magazine cover stories, television requests -- have come at the Blazers almost as fast and furious as their unrelenting style of basketball. That has made it tougher for Coach Mike Anderson to keep his players focused.

"Coach always says, 'Act like you've been here before,' but I've never been here," sophomore guard Carldell "Squeaky" Johnson said. "It's fun. I'm just trying to enjoy it while it lasts."

Alabama Birmingham has been swept up in the attention and hype since its 76-75 upset of top-seeded Kentucky on Sunday at Columbus, Ohio.

"You can't help being affected by it," senior forward Sidney Ball said.

But the Blazers (22-9) made it clear they still have unfinished business, starting today with a St. Louis Regional semifinal against Kansas (23-8) at 4:10 p.m. at the Edward Jones Dome. Nevada (25-8), the regional's other Cinderella team, plays Georgia Tech (25-9) at about 6:40.

Senior guard Mo Finley, whose 17-foot jumper with 12.2 seconds left provided the winning points against Kentucky, said he is confident the Blazers can put aside the distractions of the last week.

"We've just been trying to maintain focus on Kansas and I think that we still have a lot of basketball left to play," Finley said. "We can't afford to get too caught up in the Kentucky game."

That's just what Anderson, the Blazers' second-year coach, wants to hear. While the victory over Kentucky validated Alabama Birmingham's place among the top teams in the nation, Anderson said winning a national championship remains the ultimate goal.

"I think that our guys feel that way as well," he said. "There are only 16 teams left, and we're right there in the hunt."

Anderson, a former Arkansas assistant under Nolan Richardson, implemented the Razorbacks' old "40 minutes of hell" attack at Alabama Birmingham, and so far it has worked splendidly in the tournament.

Although the Blazers are undersized, they have been successful in wearing down opponents by playing all-out and using their reserves. Eleven players average at least eight minutes a game.

Kansas Coach Bill Self said no other team in the nation plays faster than Alabama Birmingham at both ends of the court. To prepare for the Blazers' defensive pressure, Self had his starters practice against seven or eight defenders this week.

"They will run 11 guys at you and play at a pace we have only seen during stretches of games but not over a full 40 minutes," Self said. They try "to create a sense of panic. You just try to survive."

Conditioning also will be factor for Kansas. Three starters -- forward Wayne Simien and guards Keith Langford and J.R. Giddens -- have been limited in practice because of injuries.

Of the Jayhawks' 78-63 victory over Pacific on Sunday, Self said, "You could see we were sucking air pretty good out there."

However, instead of deliberately trying to slow the pace, Self said he didn't want the Jayhawks to get away from their successful running game.

"The thing UAB does the best is create pace and force you to play at a speed maybe a little bit faster than you want to," he said. "That doesn't mean taking away running -- it just means you get hurried.... We have to exercise patience but attack every opportunity we get."

Alabama Birmingham is looking at the game as an opportunity to bump off another established program. Kansas is playing in its fourth consecutive Sweet 16 and has three starters from a team that lost to Syracuse in the NCAA final last year.

Ball, among three seniors in the Blazers' starting lineup, said he hopes beating Kentucky won't be the highlight of their season.

"We don't want to be satisfied with what we've accomplished," he said. "We want to keep moving. Coming into the season your goal is to make it to [the Final Four], and that's what we're still trying to do."

Times wire services contributed to this report.

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