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'40 minutes of hell' ready to roll

By The Associated Press

Season of torture prepares UAB

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A few days in Coach Mike Anderson's grueling conditioning program, and Mo Finley wondered if basketball at Alabama-Birmingham was really worth this kind of pain.

Drills with a water-filled ball, a shapeless blob that's impossible to grip or grab. Full-speed sessions with a heavy medicine ball. And then there were those torturous suicide sprints.

Instead of going baseline to baseline, Anderson pushed the bleachers back and had his players sprint from one gym wall to the other, concrete to concrete. Not just once or twice, either. They ran dozens of those gut-busters.

"You couldn't really appreciate it at the beginning," Finley said Thursday. "I guess the proof is in the pudding. We're winning. We're here now."

UAB (22-9) is in the round of 16 for the first time since 1982, facing fourth-seeded Kansas (23-8) in the semifinals. Third-seeded Georgia Tech, the top seed left in the regional, plays another upstart, 10th-seeded Nevada, in the other game.

It would be easy to mistake the ninth-seeded Blazers as another underdog, one of those cute little surprise teams that's found in every NCAA tournament. Just as it was easy for college coaches to overlook Finley, who is generously listed at 5-foot-11.

But anyone who underestimates Finley or the Blazers will soon find themselves roadkill, plowed under by UAB's "40 Minutes of Hell" defense.

Look at Kentucky. The Wildcats were the top seed in the tournament, looking to win its eighth NCAA title. Now they're at home, beaten by Finley's game-winning jumper with 12 seconds left last weekend.

"Personally, I felt that we were just as good as everybody else," Finley said. "We have put the work in to be successful. The bottom line is, once the tournament starts, you have to play the game. It isn't about what's on the jersey, but it is about your effort."

And trust the Blazers, few teams worked harder than they did.

Anderson got his press-'em-until-they-drop philosophy from Nolan Richardson after playing for him at Tulsa and then serving as his assistant for 17 years. It's a frenzied, up-tempo style that's fun to watch - whose jaw didn't drop at Ronell Taylor's steal and behind-the-back flip to twin brother Donell for a dunk against Kentucky? - but few teams have the energy to run it these days.

Sure, the Blazers substitute freely, with seven players averaging 18 minutes or more. But the only thing that can prepare a team for that all-out style is hard work. Lots of it.

"You have to be extremely mentally tough to come in every day, day in and day out, and try to do what coach Anderson asks," Finley said. "Physically, I guess you can always do a little more than you thought you could. If you are really tired and the dog is behind you, you will still find a way to run away if you are afraid of dogs."

Though Anderson's players had their doubts when he arrived two years ago, they've bought into his madness. After all, his system works. The Blazers won 20 games for a second straight season, shared the Conference USA regular-season title and went from the NIT last year to the NCAA tournament.

Now a program that is celebrating its 25th anniversary is facing one of college basketball's elite teams in the round of 16.

"They gave us an underdog role, they gave us a Cinderella slipper," Anderson said. "I think we're a good basketball team. I really do. Particularly the day we played Kentucky, we played some pretty good basketball."

He won't get an argument from the Jayhawks.

To give his team an idea just how stifling UAB's press is, Kansas coach Bill Self put eight defenders on his starters during practice this week.

"All five guys are covered, you have guys guarding you and you have coaches screaming at you to get open. You're looking like, `I can't,"' Keith Langford said. "I'm pretty sure it will help prepare us. It was just surprising to me that Coach felt the only way they could simulate their press was to put eight guys on the floor."

Even that might not be good enough, though. When Finley and Sidney Ball heard Kansas had practiced eight-on-five, they looked at each other and smiled.

"We're not going to have seven players on the floor," Ball said. "I think you can try to simulate what's going to happen, but it is not realistic."

The Blazers aren't the only team here that plays nasty defense. Georgia Tech (25-9) is allowing less than 40 percent shooting a game, and its defense powers its entire game.

But just like UAB, Nevada (25-8) is no ordinary underdog. It beat defensive-minded Michigan State and then knocked off second-seeded Gonzaga.

"Sweet 16, Elite Eight, WAC champs - we tried to treat everybody the same," Wolf Pack coach Trent Johnson said. "Have a lot of respect but play with a level of confidence. And yes, a level of arrogance. Respect our opponent, show class and go on from there."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

02/23/2007 10:49:46 AM

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