The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is at the end of the day teams are only judged on one thing and one thing alone: the final result. In 2006 George Mason was a very controversial at-large selection, deemed by many as unworthy of taking a spot better reserved for a power conference team that played a tougher schedule. Of course we all know how that worked out for the Patriots.
UAB certainly doesn't have the makeup of a team capable of making a run to the final weekend of the college basketball season, but with that said, the Blazers have an opportunity to add some legitimacy to their presence in the field of 68. Defeating a capable Clemson team in the First Four may not silence all of the detractors, but it would certainly quiet many of those who found the Conference-USA regular season champions an unworthy choice over such programs as Colorado and Virginia Tech.
Of course, they have to get past a tested Tigers team first. Come on in, get familiar with both teams and share your thoughts on the opening night of the NCAA Tournament!
UAB Blazers, 12-seed
By now if you've paid even modest attention to the aftermath of Selection Sunday you have a pretty good idea of what the Blazers resume looks like: 22-8 record, 31 in the RPI, a 78 strength of schedule and only one win of major significance in the non-conference schedule (VCU). Still for all of that, let's not forget UAB did win a stingy C-USA during the regular season, that's got to count for something right? We'll find out in a couple of hours.
UAB is an above average offensive team, struggling in transition but performing well in the half court set. This unit is led by a duo of guards in Jamarr Sanders and the nation's leader in assists per game, Aaron Johnson, along with versatile forward Cameron Moore. Given their athleticism, the Blazers are at their best in spot-up situations when they opt to put the ball on the floor and in iso sets with Johnson and Sanders getting the bulk of the touches here. Moore presents some match-up problems given his 6-10 frame, the ability to step out to the perimeter with his jumper and above all else the fantastic job he does moving off the ball. The junior big man ranks in the top 10% nationally in scoring efficiency with cuts without the basketball in his hands.
This team definitely has proven to be more of a force at the defensive end, ranking in the top 50 in Division 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency and when utilizing the points per possession metric are in the 91st percentile in the country. The Blazers have one of the best perimeter defenses in the country as far as keeping opposing three-point shooters in check and aren't all that far behind with shots inside the arc. They are at their best defending spot-up scenarios and hold teams to limited success in transition, allowing less than .9 points per possession in each setting, an excellent mark. With that said, they struggle immensely in isolation situations (which speaks to their questionable help defense) and are equally as poor defending the pick and roll. Luckily for them, Clemson isn't particularly great at either.
Clemson Tigers, 12-seed
An up and down regular season (no conference winning or losing streak longer than 2 games) resulted in the Tigers barely surviving a stay on the bubble, but landed them in the First Four. Senior guard Demontez Stitt has been a stat sheet stuffer for Clemson, providing a consistent offensive threat in the ACC and has stepped up his game significantly since the postseason began. Fellow senior Jerai Grant has anchored the interior with his 6-8 230-pound frame, leading the team in rebounds while chipping in 12 points a night.
Despite a few bright spots, this has been a pretty average offense with Clemson ranking 189th nationally in points per game and 77th in adjusted offensive efficiency. They have been at their best in spot-up situations and in transition where they've been equally good at getting to the tin and finding opening perimeter shooters while the defense scrambles back into position. The Tigers will enter the ball into the low post on a pretty normal basis but are only in the 59th percentile at the Division 1 level in regards to scoring efficiency, shooting 42% and scoring .823 points per possession in these scenarios according to Synergy Sports Technology.
Like their opponent UAB, Clemson is strongest at the defensive end of the floor, though to an even greater degree. Regardless of the metric used, the Tigers are among the best in the nation when it comes to preventing the opposing team from scoring, ranking 9th in defensive efficiency and 11th in points per possession allowed. They're slightly better at holding teams in check inside the arc, but their overall athleticism in both the frontcourt and backcourt has allowed them to be among the national leaders in both steal percentage and block percentage. The Blazers offense is going to have its hands full as Clemson excels defending every play type according to Synergy, really standing out in transition where their length and quickness make finishing at the rim difficult (teams shoot just 37% here).
There's little question that Clemson is the superior team defensively, but their lack of a strong offense could be their undoing. Not only does UAB have better overall balance, but more importantly, they have a greater degree of motivation. While the Tigers may simply be playing to get to the next round of the NCAA Tournament, the Blazers are playing to prove they even belong on this stage. Give this one to UAB in a close one.