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2015 NCAA Tournament preview: UAB faces UCLA Saturday for chance to return to the Sweet 16

Wearing Cinderella's slipper on their left foot, the Blazers knocked off 3-seed Iowa State and Fred Hoiberg, and have found their way into the round of 32.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Gene Bartow succeeded John Wooden 40 years ago at UCLA, and 40 years ago, Jerod Haase was born in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

It's part coincidence, part irony, even somewhat me simply creating a storyline. But UAB, led by Jerod Haase -- whose opportunity was established by Bartow -- will play UCLA on Saturday for a chance to return to the Sweet 16 and that's somewhat remarkable.

On November 15, 2014, UAB opened their season against Louisiana Monroe. To shortcut the details, UAB lost. The Blazers then lost eight of their next 12 basketball games and oh, the football program was demolished. Having had season tickets (on and off) since the 2004 season, that was rock bottom for UAB basketball.

I didn't want to go to games; I didn't care. I couldn't really come to grips with the fact UAB's storied basketball program had come to that point.

I believed it when Jerod Haase said at his hiring, "This is not about five years from now I hope we make the NCAA Tournament and do some damage in it. We can win, and we can win right away."

At that moment, though, I certainly did not. At 4-9, about to enter CUSA play, and with a campus revolting on their president, nobody did. Except for Haase.

Game after game the team improved. William Lee, a recruit rated 64 by ESPN who had commited to the Blazers in April, began to play. Robert Brown, the Virginia Tech-transfer, found his place as the conference's third leading scorer. Chris Cokley, Tosin Mehinti, and Tyler Madison, became the workhorses of the team. Nick Norton and Denzel Watts ran the offense, assisting and scoring at the most opportune times.

With the culmination of fan support due to decisions made on the football team, and ultimate growth of the five freshman contributors, UAB walked into the Conference USA tournament -- in Birmingham -- and beat Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee State on their way to holding the trophy.

Then it hit me, players, fans alike: UAB was headed back to the big dance for the first time since a 2011 trip to the First Four. But more likely, they would be in the field cleanly, for the first time since 2006.

Wearing Cinderella's slipper on their left foot, the Blazers were 14-point underdogs against Iowa State and Fred Hoiberg. With defense, rebounding, and a flurry of buckets after trailing 55-51 with 1:30 to play, UAB won, and found their way into the round of 32 of the NCAA tournament.

The third year of the team's existence under Bartow, the UAB legend took them to the Sweet 16. Saturday UAB will have a chance to repeat that feat in Jerod Haase's third year. Go figure.

The 14-seed UAB Blazers will take on 11-seed UCLA Bruins at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, at 12:10 p.m. Eastern, on CBS.

Jerod Haase will be on the sidelines, Gene Bartow will be cheering in his seat up above.