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What BYU fans need to know about University of Alabama at Birmingham

Ron Frehm, Associated Press

BYU opens the NIT against the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Wednesday, but how much do the Cougars know about the Blazers?

You can bet that head coach Dave Rose and the BYU coaching staff are watching film and studying up on UAB. There will be plenty of other previews that will go over the matchups on the hardwood.

This preview is a bit different, for UAB isn't your average C-USA team. Or your average college basketball team, for that matter.

BYU and its fans would do well to understand a bit of the history of this relatively young yet proud program and the obstacles it continues to face from its own board of trustees. And while this preview does not contain a detailed preview of the upcoming game, it is wise to look at what this team has accomplished this year.

History

UAB basketball owes its existence to former head coach and athletic director Gene Bartow. Before coming to Birmingham, Bartow had the unenviable job of following basketball legend John Wooden as head coach at UCLA. Despite taking the Bruins to a Final Four appearance in his first year and a Sweet 16 his second, Bartow left Los Angeles to start the UAB athletics program from scratch.

There was no athletics program in Birmingham before Bartow arrived in 1978. UAB was originally an extension center for the University of Alabama. And Alabama is a college athletic program that needs no introduction. Thriving in the shadow of the Crimson Tide would be a difficult task indeed.

But Bartow wasted no time in building a successful basketball program in Birmingham. His team went 18-12 in his first year. The Blazers went to the NIT his second year. UAB made it to the Sweet 16 his third year and the Elite Eight the following year.

This is worth repeating: Bartow took UAB from literally nothing to an Elite Eight appearance in four seasons. Little wonder UAB's home court is named Bartow Arena. In all, Bartow took the Blazers to nine NCAA Tournament appearances before retiring in 1996.

But the road for UAB's athletic program has been rocky from its conception. UAB is part of the University of Alabama System along with Alabama-Huntsville and the main campus at Tuscaloosa. UAB shares its board of trustees with these other two universities.

And not all of them are UAB fans.

In fact, UAB was forced to discontinue its football program at the end of 2014 by university President Ray Watts and the board of trustees. The future of UAB's athletic program looked dark indeed.

But Blazer fans did not let their program go extinct. The Birmingham community banded together to pressure the university into bringing back football for the 2017 season.

This goes to show how resilient this fan base and program are. BYU better be prepared for this same kind of resiliency in Provo.

This season

Those expecting a cake walk against the Blazers should think again.

UAB won the regular-season C-USA title with a 16-2 record and a 26-6 overall record. However, a loss to Western Kentucky in the quarterfinals of the C-USA tournament killed any chance for the Blazers to go to the Big Dance due to a weak resume without a single top-50 RPI win. UAB didn't even play a team that finished in the RPI top 50, although it played three Power 5 opponents.

But teams don't win more than 25 games without being good.

UAB is one of the most unselfish teams in college basketball as it averages 18.5 assists per game. That's good enough for third in the country and a full 2.0 assists higher than No. 24 BYU at that same category. The Blazers are extremely balanced on offense as only 4.5 points separates the leading scorer (Robert Brown, 13.5 ppg) from the fifth-place scorer (Nick Norton, 9.0 ppg).

That means that BYU can't focus on one main scorer to stop the Blazers.

The Cougars can expect the Blazers to come into Provo with a chip on their shoulder. Brown talked about the team's "anger" in an interview with an Alabama ABC station.

This is an athletic program that is used to being underestimated. This is a program that has needed to prove the need for its existence to its own board of trustees. And these players will not give the Cougars an easy time, even in the confines of the Marriott Center.

And, interestingly enough, Alabama is in the same quadrant as BYU and UAB.

All things considered, BYU better not underestimate this 7-seed from C-USA. It is hungry for a big win, and while an NCAA Tournament game would undoubtedly suit them better, the Blazers won't hesitate to take a win from 2-seed BYU on its home floor if given the opportunity.

Lafe Peavler is a sports strategist for the Deseret News and KSL.com. Follow him on Twitter @LafePeavler.