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C-USA Regular Season Champ UAB Looks To Justify It's Tournament Spot Against Clemson

The inaugural “Field of 68” format for the 2011 NCAA Tournament continues Tuesday night from UD Arena in Dayton, as the UAB Blazers of Conference USA match up against the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Clemson Tigers for a chance to claim the 12th seed in the East Region.

Dubbed the “First Four”, Tuesday’s matchup is the second of four games over two days at UD Arena as part of the new play-in format to reach the traditional 64-team field. The winner of this first-round matchup moves on to face the East Region’s fifth seed, West Virginia, Thursday in Tampa, Florida at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Clemson competed in the always tough ACC and emerged with a first-round bye to the conference tournament after winning out on a tie-breaker with both Boston College and Virginia Tech at 9-7 in league play. The Tigers handled Boston College easily in a 70-47 rout in the quarterfinals before giving top-seeded regular-season champ North Carolina all they could handle in a 92-87 overtime loss in the semifinals. Clemson comes into this matchup with four wins in six games with its only two losses coming against UNC and Duke, which defeated the Tar Heels in the conference championship Sunday. The Tigers are making a fourth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament but are searching for their first win since the 1997 team advanced to the Sweet 16. Clemson is 8-10 all- time in the tourney and will make its 11th appearance in the Dance this year.

UAB closed out the regular-season with four straight wins in a competitive Conference USA field to clinch its first league regular-season championship. The Blazers’ top seeding and momentum quickly ended though, as East Carolina pulled off a 75-70 overtime win in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. It was a disappointing end to the Blazers’ hopes of capturing their initial conference tourney crown, but the NCAA’s decision to hand out an at-large bid was no surprise. UAB posted a solid 12-4 record against C-USA opponents during the year and played a tough non-conference slate that included losses to fellow NCAA Tournament teams Duke (85-64) and Georgia (66-64), both on the road, as well as a pair of close defeats to Memphis. The Blazers also beat one of this year’s other “First Four” clubs, VCU. UAB is making its 14th appearance in the NCAA Tournament and first since 2006 when it was bounced in the first round by Kentucky. The Blazers are 9-13 all-time in tournament play with their best finish an Elite Eight appearance in 1982.

UAB has won both previous matchups with Clemson. The last meeting resulted in a 78-66 Blazer win on December 21, 2004 in the opening round of the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu. The only other meeting came back on March 22, 1993 in the second round of the NIT when UAB edged Clemson, 66-64, at Bartow Arena.

It was the Tigers’ defensive prowess more than anything that enabled a successful 2010-11, ending just ninth in the ACC in scoring at 68.2 points per game but also with the league’s top-ranked defense at 60.9 ppg. That number also included the ACC’s third-best field-goal percentage defense (40.0). Senior Demontez Stitt churns the offense, leading the club in both scoring at 14.7 ppg and assists with 3.3 per game while adding 4.5 rebounds per contest. Jerai Grant posted 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game with the 6-8 senior adding 77 blocks, third in the ACC, and a team-high 56.8 shooting percentage. Grant managed just four points in the loss to UNC, though the Tigers’ third- leading scorer, Andre Young (10.8 ppg), stepped up with 14 points. Young also paces the squad with 74 three-pointers on 39.6 percent shooting. Milton Jennings and Devin Booker help add depth, checking in at 8.3 and 7.9 points per game, respectively, with both pulling down 5.3 boards on average.

Though the Blazers garnered C-USA’s No. 1 seed for the tournament, they failed to top even one statistical category of note in C-USA despite excelling in multiple areas. UAB’s defense ranked second in giving up a stingy 62.3 points per game, though the offense stood just seventh at 68.9 ppg. Still, the Blazers pack a serious 1-2 punch with the scoring of senior Jamarr Sanders and junior Cameron Moore. Sanders leads the team in scoring at 17.7 points per game and in three-pointers with 85 on 37.8 percent shooting. Moore stands above most secondary scorers with a 14.3-point average to go along with 9.4 rebounds - good for second in the league. The duo is helped along by the deft ball-handling of senior Aaron Johnson, whose 7.7 assists per game leads the nation. The senior adds a solid 12.0-point average as well and went off for a career-high 39 points in the loss to East Carolina upon being named C-USA’s Player of the Year. The Blazers managed to finish fourth in C-USA in free throw percentage at 71.9 in helping to offset a mediocre 44.0-percent shooting clip from the field that ranked just eighth in the league.

Clemson’s defense cannot be overlooked against any opponent, making it a dangerous opponent for West Virginia should it advance. However, UAB also shouldn’t be overlooked, sporting a tough defense and a trio of capable playmakers on offense. The Tigers get the edge here though, with the ACC Tournament proving as good a testing-ground as any for the biggest stage in college basketball.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Clemson 68, UAB 64

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