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2022 CUSA Tournament Championship Preview

Championship Saturday is upon us. In the women’s bracket, the Lady Techsters and Charlotte 49ers will play in the undercard. After that is the moment we’ve all been waiting for: 2W UAB Blazers vs 3W Louisiana Tech.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

We wrote a little preview of the team prior to the tournament here.

This team is very good, but has some scoring droughts because they rely so heavily on Lofton and when he sits or is schemed out of the game, it is hard to find points. That makes this squad vulnerable, but if they play at the top of their potential, they can win this whole thing.

They’ve been playing at the top of their potential. Against North Texas, they got points when it mattered and executed. That said, they only scored 42 points. That’s … not good. They will need to score with UAB to have a chance. The good news is that they can do that. Keaston Willis has made 11 threes this tournament, including 4 big ones vs North Texas. He has been the outlet when teams are doubling Kenneth Lofton, Jr inside. The question is will UAB need to double Lofton?

In Birmingham, UAB’s Trey Jemison dominated the matchup. Lofton was quiet on the scoreboard vs North Texas, but played good defense against NT’s Ousmane, and got buckets and rebounds vs WKU’s Sharp. Middle’s Dishman had 25 in 46 minutes vs UAB and the Blazers fouled out. Lofton can do some of the same type of things, but UAB has seen him twice with success this season.

Cobe Williams îs Tech’s primary ball-handler and will get loose for some jumpers on the pick and roll. Konkol told me the game plan for North Texas was to attack, but unless there was a clear opportunity to get to the basket, the team were instructed to stop short and find a pass or a floater or jumper. North Texas played drop coverage on the pick and roll, and Cobe Williams hit three big jumpers on the second half. He will need more than that, vs a UAB team that can score quickly.

Louisiana Tech has had success this week by running the floor. Lofton will get a rebound, look to fire it ahead to one of Cam Stewart, Keaston Willis, or Amorie Archibald. Any of those guys can finish in traffic, and Willis has been ready to let it loose on the break. Any of those guys will take a three in transition, and can attack the closeout with aggression and finish at the rim. Willis has been the most successful at this simply because he has been dangerous from distance. He had to big layups vs Marshall, and big threes in the last two games.

Tech was unable to run vs North Texas’ top-20 defense, but they got enough when they could. UAB’s defense is more athletic, bigger, and meaner but can and will give up stretches of points. It is an odd combination, but effective.

Tech has played three games, and well, so has UAB in effect. The Blazers had a bye, but also played three overtime games yesterday. Tech is on a ‘revenge tour’ and this is the final piece.

Keys to the game:

  1. Willis has to hit at least 4 threes, everyone else has to shoot at least 35%
  2. Lofton a near 20 and 10
  3. Cobe Williams a plus in the pick and roll game.
  4. Walker will get hot, but cannot let Jackson, Buffen, Lovan, get loose on easy runouts and second-chance buckets

UAB Blazers

We wrote a little preview of them prior to the tournament here.

The Blazing Dragons are our pick to win it. The defense is monstrous, the scoring is nearly unstoppable, and they have the player of the year in Jelly Walker (also name of the year). Who will slay the dragons? Maybe NT with their defense and home-court?

Well Middle basically had them beat three times. They led by six in that second overtime. UAB is very good, lengthy, athletic, and mean. Andy Kennedy called Quan Jackson a ‘cornerback’ and praised his ability to judge the flight of the ball in the air. There was a sequence vs Middle where he defended Donovan Sims at half court, rotated on the pass, and then got the rebound underneath the basket. This was in overtime number three. He’s ridiculous. He won a scrum on the floor that sealed the game, as Middle battled for the ball. He will wreck you.

UAB dominated Tech late in Birmingham, and the gigantic question will be if they will be allowed to be physical in this one. Trey Jemison, the 7’1″ center, and KJ Buffen, the 6’7″ front court player — both in the 230 lb range — were fouled out vs Middle’s Dishman. Middle’s length bothered UAB, blocking shots and bothering shooters. Tech has good athletes but they are relatively “normal” in college basketball terms.

Jelly got loose for 40 points, but it took three overtimes to do it. Andy Kennedy says “fatigue will not be an issue” and we have to wonder if that is simply motivating talk. They played very hard, for a long time, and will now be asked to do it again. Any advantage had by the bye is maybe given away. The depth will be tested, but they came up big. “We were playing five guards out there.”

Tavin Lovan is not a shooter, or really a major part of the offense but he’s a glue guy. He defends, hustles, and has been around. Mike Ertel was the team’s primary scorer last year, and has ceded that role to Jelly (understandably) and is thriving off the attention paid to the player of the year. Kennedy: “Mike has benefited from the attention they give Walker.” His teammate talked up Ertel’s ability, after a brief struggle. “He went through a slump, and he worked through that.”

Against Middle, Ertel hit a huge three to cut it to one-point in the first OT. Later, he hit another to balloon the lead. Simply put, you cannot let him loose. UAB likes to run actions that have both Ertel and Walker coming off screens for pull-ups. Both can light you up from there, although teams orient themselves to one of those options. And that gives Ertel some great looks against teams’ second-best defender.

Tech will keep Williams on Walker for a while, and he did well vs Dayvion McKnight and Tylor Perry. It is a huge ask to defend the player of the year, however, but that’s how you become a champ. You have to favor UAB in that matchup, however. Walker can get 40, and Williams can maybe get 20 on a good night.

Keys to the game:

  1. No foul trouble
  2. Get Ertel and Walker easy looks early
  3. Do not let Tech run in transition
  4. Lock down Willis

UAB were tested vs Middle, whose length and size bothered shooters. Dishman went to work vs Jemison, and the refs did not let UAB play their customary physical style. Ultimately, they had the trump card of having the best player on the court. Walker got buckets that few guys can get, in high leverage moments. UAB were fortunate in that Middle was missing their best scorer, and lacked a reliable go-to guy late that could have sealed it.

Tech found enough points vs the best defense in the league, but found enough of their style to get through. Williams, and Willis were huge, and everyone else did a lot of non-box score work in fighting through screens, and defending. Lofton was very good vs Ousmane, even though it didn’t show. His size bothered the baby hook that worked vs Rice. Lofton was not a big factor scoring, but that’s because NT was doubling. He found shooters and even hockey assists all night. He has been great and finding options when doubled. Tech was fortunate in that NT was getting good looks from three from guys they want shooting it, but didn’t knock them down.

UAB should win this, demonstrating their superiority in this game in size, scoring, and enthusiasm but Louisiana Tech is on something like a Cinderella run. They are one game away from duplicating the North Texas 2021 run.

Prediction: Louisiana Tech by 1

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