A text message from a trusted friend was the first time I heard about the ability of UAB basketball player Eric Gaines.
UAB is getting a good one, it read. Great player.
It was an understatement.
Who even is Eric Gaines? I didn’t really know at the time. This was back in April. A lot of people still don’t know, here in November, but they’re going to learn this season.
I watched Gaines in person for the first time on Wednesday night in UAB’s 92-61 decimation of Presbyterian. Bartow Arena hasn’t seen a player this electric through the lane since William Lee’s freshman year in 2014-15. They’re different types of players, of course, but equally stunning in the air.
A 6-2 transfer guard from LSU, Gaines’ ability as a dunker is already legendary among basketball insiders. Against Presbyterian, he led UAB in scoring with 16 points, but also had 10 assists, four rebounds and three blocks. It was a stunning performance, and Gaines’ first double-double of his career. Expect many more before Gaines is done at Bartow Arena.
Jelly Walker, UAB’s national player of the year candidate, had 15 points in 23 minutes in UAB’s second home game of the season. The Southside Dragons are off to a 2-1 start after losing in Philadelphia to Toledo in the inaugural Barstool Sports Invitational. There is national buzz for UAB this season, and Walker is surrounded with enough talent for the Blazers to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
When will the noise level in Bartow match the talent level of this team? That’s tough to say. Serious question, but will UAB ever be a basketball school again? What gives?
Maybe it’s the lingering effects of the pandemic, or maybe it’s sincere ignorance for what could be one of the best UAB basketball teams in school history, but UAB’s attendance was surprisingly low considering this team has one of the best players in the country. Walker led the Blazers to championships in the regular season and conference tournament last season, and averaged over 20 points per game.
He’s a special player, and this will be a special season for UAB. Hate for people to miss it.
Birmingham sold out Legacy Arena for the preseason NBA game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Atlanta Hawks, so there is recent proof that people in Birmingham enjoy good basketball. And yet support flounders for the Blazers despite having star alum Andy Kennedy as the coach and a roster built for big things. It’s puzzling. It’s infuriating. I don’t understand it. UAB basketball has the tradition. It has the arena. It has the coach. It has the players.
UAB basketball lacks nothing except support from its city.
Is it the atmosphere inside Bartow that keeps people away? There was decent student support for the slaughter of Presbyterian, but the student sections are situated away from the action. Maybe changes are needed. Auburn Arena is the gold standard, but even Samford will put UAB to shame this season in fan support if Birmingham continues to sleep on the Blazers.
What’s this team got to do to attract fans? Making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015 wasn’t enough, apparently.
UAB was outmanned in the first round of the 2022 tournament, but Houston was one of the deepest teams in the field and made it to the Elite Eight. The Blazers have that kind of depth this season. Against Presbyterian, everyone took turns dunking. There were more than twice as many dunks as fans on their feet. Tough crowd, I guess.
UAB home games should be appointment theater for Birmingham basketball fans. In Gaines, Jelly Walker now has a co-star. Walker is an elite three-point shooter, and Gaines can break down any defense with vicious assaults on the rim.
Defensively, Gaines is a perimeter pest, and that’s exactly what this lineup needs most of all after losing Quan Jackson to graduation.
But the dunks?
Oh my, oh my.
Gaines is a highlight reel of a player. My friend was right. Spot on intel. Gaines is like UAB’s version of Dwyane Wade.
The source of the information was Ernest Watford, the father of Christian and Trendon Watford. The Watfords are Alabama hoops royalty. They have ties to just about every college basketball team in the state. Trendon Watford played with Gaines at LSU, and Gaines found his way to Birmingham after LSU fired former Tigers coach Will Wade.
LSU’s loss was UAB’s gain. That’s the way it goes in college basketball these days. The transfer portal is recalibrating the sport, and no one is doing a better job of recruiting the portal than UAB’s Kennedy.
Except maybe Auburn coach Bruce Pearl.
Or is it Alabama coach Nate Oats?
But what about Bucky McMillan at Samford, coach Scott Cross at Troy and Ray Harper at Jacksonville State? Coach Richie Riley at South Alabama has reloaded, too.
Before the pandemic hit, I wrote a column about the approaching golden age of college hoops in the state of Alabama. Well, it’s here, and it’s beautiful. College basketball, for the 2022-23 season at least, will be deeper than college football in the state of Alabama. That might sound like crazy talk, but I could see a path for six teams from the state making the NCAA Tournament this March.
Auburn and Alabama are never lacking for fans. UAB fans are never lacking in excuses. Truth hurts sometimes. The Blazers’ next home game is at noon on Saturday, Nov.26. What’s going to be the excuse this time, Southside?
Maybe it’s time to make a statement as a basketball town. You know, silence the critics. No better opportunity than packing out Bartow on the day of the Iron Bowl. Goes without saying no one’s traveling to Louisiana Tech.
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group, and author of “We Want Bama: A season of hope and the making of Nick Saban’s ‘ultimate team’”. You can find him on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.
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