March 17, 2004
GAME: No. 9 Alabama-Birmingham (20-9) vs. No. 8 Washington (19-11).
REGIONAL: St. Louis, first round.
TIME: Friday, 10 p.m. EST.
SITE: Nationwide Arena; Columbus, Ohio
Washington was the only team in the nation to beat No. 1 Stanford this season.
But after losing to the Cardinal in last week's Pac-10 tournament title game, the Huskies will have to win five times in the NCAA tournament just to have a chance at a rubber match with their conference rivals.
Judging from Washington's impressive turnaround this season, that scenario is not entirely impossible.
The Huskies will begin chasing their lofty goals when they meet Alabama-Birmingham in the first round.
Perhaps no team in the tournament completed as drastic a turnaround as Washington, which opened the season 5-8, including a dismal 0-5 in the Pac-10.
Undaunted, the resilient Huskies won 14 of their final 17 games, finished second in the conference and ruined Stanford's run at a perfect season with a 75-62 upset of the Cardinal in the regular season finale for both teams March 6.
Washington beat UCLA and No. 22 Arizona en route to the Pac-10 tournament title game, but suffered a 77-66 loss to Stanford on Saturday.
Though an extended run in the tournament isn't exactly being predicted, Washington guard Will Conroy believes this team can go as far as its collective belief will take it.
"When you get to the NCAA tournament, it's not about the best teams," Conroy said. "Every year you see Cinderellas beat the number-one teams. It's all about who is playing the best that day, but it's not bad to get a little luck in the tournament too."
As for advancing through the field of 64, the Huskies feel sufficiently battle-tested after playing must-win games virtually the entire second half of the season.
"For the past two months we've been hearing, 'This game is the biggest game of your career', so we've been kind of playing with a chip on our shoulder for a long time," Conroy said. "So we're glad that we can just release all of that and just go out and play."
Washington, making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1999, will take on a UAB team that finished in a five-way tie for first place in Conference USA.
The Blazers also went on a strong season-ending run, winning seven of nine before a 75-74 loss to DePaul in the C-USA tournament semifinals last Friday.
UAB is also back in the tournament for the first time since 1999, a credit to second-year coach Mike Anderson, who began resurrecting the program by earning an NIT bid last season.
"I am excited, I know our guys are happy," said Anderson, who has guided the Blazers to a record of 41-22 in his two seasons after they went a combined 30-31 the previous two years.
"To see it all come together and have the opportunity to go to 'the Big Dance', that's exciting for us. To get to the tournament in only two years, it's amazing."
PROBABLE STARTERS: UAB - F Gabe Kennedy (11.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), F Demario Eddins (9.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg), C Sidney Ball (7.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg), G Carldell Johnson (4.5 ppg, 4.2 apg), G Mo Finley (13.5 ppg, 1.7 spg). Washington - F Bobby Jones (11.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg), F Mike Jensen (7.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), G Nate Robinson (12.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.7 apg), G Brandon Roy (13.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.2 apg), G Conroy (12.1 ppg, 4.6 apg).
HOW THEY GOT HERE: UAB - At-large berth. Washington - At-large berth.
ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: UAB - 6-10, 10 years. Washington - 10-11, 10 years.