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SHANNON RYAN / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Alabama Birmingham rides defense into top-25 ranking

Blazers' resume includes victories over Cincinnati and Butler.

December 29, 2009|Shannon Ryan

There was plenty of preseason talk about Memphis losing its crown in Conference USA.

Tulsa was picked as the team that could unseat the perennial winners, who looked solid enough to reclaim the title until that loss at Massachusetts.

Alabama Birmingham was hardly part of the debate.

Until this week.

Following up on last season's 22-victory season, the Blazers are 11-1 and cracked the Associate Press top 25 for the first time since 2005-06 with impressive victories. They defeated then-No. 25 Cincinnati, 64-47, and then-No. 20 Butler, 67-57, in home games. In between was a victory at South Alabama, which just defeated Florida.

How did they do it?

The Blazers' defense under former Indiana coach Mike Davis has throttled opponents.

In 11 victories, the Blazers haven't given up more than 64 points in a game and held nine opponents below 60 points.

They have held opponents to 38.5% shooting overall and 28.2% on three-point shots. Birmingham held Cincinnati to 31.7% shooting from the field and Butler to 33.9%.

Butler Coach Brad Stevens called Birmingham's defense "one of the best in the country."

And Birmingham didn't rely on one player to supply points.

Against Butler, guard Jamarr Sanders scored 18 points and Aaron Johnson contributed 12.

Against Cincinnati, Elijah Millsap scored 22 points. Millsap, who is averaging 15.4 points and leads the conference with 9.8 rebounds per game, sat out last season after transferring from Louisiana Lafayette.

"We played a big-time basketball team," Davis said after the Butler game. "We look forward to playing teams like this in our home gym."

It will be awhile.

The Blazers put their new-found status on the line when they go on the road this week to play Virginia and Arkansas.

Swish of the week

West Virginia. In a Big East Conference that is stronger than most anticipated, the Mountaineers are proving they have the durability to play in tough games.

They survived early games without Devin Ebanks, who was absent for personal reasons. Then they beat teams that looked like nobodies but eventually made the top-25 rankings in Texas A&M and Portland. And this week they defeated Mississippi at home and withstood a furious Seton Hall rally to win in overtime on the road in the conference opener.

Sophomore Kevin Jones (15.5 points per game) has been a surprising complement to Ebanks (13.2) and Da'Sean Butler (16.5).

Brick of the week

Florida. The Gators made us believers with victories against Florida State and then-No. 2 Michigan State to start the season 8-0.

Then came a recent three-game slide, each loss worse than the previous. Losing to Syracuse is excusable. Losing to Richmond is glaring. Losing to South Alabama at home is alarming.

The loss was the first at home in December for the Gators since 2004, and that was to Louisville. The Gators need January to resemble November more than December.

Game of the week

Texas Tech at New Mexico, Tuesday. Nobody expected much from either team this season but both were nice surprises in the early season.

New Mexico (12-1) was cruising along with victories against California and Texas A&M before losing to Oral Roberts. Texas Tech (10-1) beat Washington and Stanford but was tripped up by Wichita State on the road.

Both teams look bound for the NCAA tournament and this could help the resume for the winner.

sryan@tribune.com

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