Blazers thrive on frenetic pace, pressure

Playing Alabama-Birmingham and its heralded "fastest 40 minutes of basketball" pressure is never an easy task (just ask Kentucky coach Tubby Smith) but it will be especially difficult for the men's basketball team given Travis Diener's status.

It's uncertain whether the senior point guard and primary ball handler will be available for Wednesday's 7 p.m. game. He is still rehabbing the stress fracture in his left foot and is day-to-day, according to Marquette assistant coach Jeff Strohm.

Even if Diener is able to play, the Golden Eagles will need a team effort to overcome the press.

"As a team we got to do a better job of protecting the ball," Strohm said. "You don't beat the press with one guy. You need five guys to handle the ball."

The first two names out of Strohm's mouth when he listed players who need to improve their ball handling were sophomore Dameon Mason and junior Joe Chapman.

The two have struggled while filling in for Diener at the point the past two games. Against Louisville Wednesday, Mason fouled out after 19 minutes with five turnovers and three assists while Chapman notched three turnovers and one assist.

Saturday at Saint Louis, Mason had four turnovers and two assists and Chapman recorded three turnovers and four assists. Combined, they have a 1:1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio over the past two contests.

That's an ominous statistic given that UAB forces their opponents to commit more turnovers (21.6 per game) than any other team in Conference USA.

The Blazers create a plethora of opportunities for themselves by rotating between a man-to-man full-court press and a zone full-court press. In both cases, UAB likes to trap and steal the ball or force a poor pass.

"We put pressure on the ball all the time and try to speed it (the tempo) up," UAB assistant coach Matt Zimmerman said. "The key to everything is what we do on defense."

Even if an opponent can break the press and get the ball into their front court, the UAB defense can still exert its will on a team.

"The thing that they do is create pace, they force you to play at a speed that's maybe a little faster than what you want to," Kansas coach Bill Self told television station 6 News Lawrence (Kan.) before playing UAB in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

UAB defeated eighth seeded Washington, 102-100, in the first round of the tournament, and then busted office pool brackets across the country when it stunned top seeded Kentucky, 76-75. The run ended in the Sweet 16 with a 100-74 loss to the Jayhawks.

In the week leading up to the game, Kansas' playing rotation practiced against eight players, and on game day the preparation showed because they beat UAB at their own frenzied game.

According to Strohm, Marquette has prepared in a similar fashion.

"We had a lot of overload where you play versus more players," he said. "The

players did a good job and the walk-ons helped."

Another way to beat the Blazers is to simply out-shoot them.

"Teams that take high percentage shots (beat us) that's the big key," Zimmerman said. "As I always say you can't beat a shooter and Marquette's got a lot of them — Novak, Diener, Mason when he gets going, we've seen Townsend make some threes. They got guys who can shoot."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Feb. 1 2005.