UAB basketball rising in Kevin Connors' Mid-Major Top 10, Loyola Chicago hangs on at No. 1

Andy Kennedy has his alma mater UAB atop the Conference USA standings in 2021-22. Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire

UAB Blazers head coach Andy Kennedy says he misses TV.

The camaraderie. The access. The mindset.

"I miss it after those tough L's, I'll tell you that!"

Spoken like a coach. But that's who Andy Kennedy inescapably is, a two-year detour under bright lights of a different kind notwithstanding.

Nine 20-win seasons helped make "AK" the winningest coach in the history of Ole Miss basketball. But in the ultra-high-stakes world of Power 5 hoops, even that was not enough to appease university officials, who denied Kennedy a contract extension heading into the final year of his deal in 2017. Mounting tension led to a decision midway through the season in which the parties agreed to part ways following the SEC tournament. But with four games remaining, Kennedy abruptly resigned, issuing a written farewell that said his presence had become "detrimental to finishing the season in a fashion representative of the standard [of] this program."

Unintentional though it might have been, that de facto news bulletin led to a career in the media as a TV analyst at ESPN and SEC Network. Despite no prior experience and no previous commentating ambitions, Kennedy excelled.

"I have no doubt if he continued with television he would have been great at it," says ESPN senior coordinating producer David Ceisler. "He stayed authentic to who he is. Fun, reactive, great energy, engaging to converse."

Kennedy simplified it.

"I wanted to call the game as if I was sitting on the couch, drinking a beer with a buddy."

Which is what he did for two full seasons, broadcasting games in the arenas where he once coached and analyzing the coaches against whom he once matched wits. Invitations to practices and film sessions were part of the gig, opportunities that provided a sorely needed fresh perspective on the game.

"I got to see, 'Hey man, if I get back [into coaching] maybe I'm going try some of this,'" recalls Kennedy, who knew deep down no amount of forehead powderings could mask his true calling.

So when the chance to take over at his alma mater presented itself, Kennedy took it, with an eye on returning UAB basketball to the glory years he helped make glorious. A Parade All-American in high school, Kennedy spent one season at NC State under Jim Valvano, before transferring to Birmingham to play for Gene Bartow, a legend of equal standing. Bartow led Memphis State to the 1973 national championship game, then later succeeded John Wooden at UCLA before leaving to take over as men's basketball coach and director of athletics at UAB, where he built Blazers sports from the ground up.

Kennedy flourished under Bartow, leading the Sun Belt Conference in scoring his senior season, finishing a three-year career with 1,787 points, second most in school history. A series of knee injuries cut short a promising pro playing career, which led to a pivot toward the path of his mentor. It was not well-received.

"Coach Bartow wasn't very helpful," remembers Kennedy, adding "he didn't want me to get into coaching. He told me, 'Coaching is a great business if it wasn't for those games.'"

Still there was no convincing the then-26-year-old, who paid his dues as an assistant first at South Alabama, then at UAB under Murry Bartow, Gene's son, before joining Bob Huggins at Cincinnati. That foundation, including a year as Bearcats interim head coach, led Kennedy to Ole Miss, a program coming off four consecutive losing seasons. In year one, the Rebels improved by seven wins. Year two, they won 24 games. In nine of the next 10 seasons they won at least 19 games, including two trips to the NCAA tournament. Kennedy's lone losing season in Oxford was his final season.

Without the split, however, there would have been no stint in broadcasting, and without that stint in broadcasting, there would be no change in the now-53-year-old.

"No question I'm a different coach," Kennedy admits. "I'm still very, very demanding when it comes to accountability. But having the perspective of being away from coaching, I don't want it to be such a grind where it takes out the joy of the game for my players."

Now in his second season leading UAB, Kennedy's style is resulting in wins. Last year, the Blazers went 22-7 including a 13-5 mark in Conference USA. This year, they're 16-4, 6-1 in C-USA with a real shot at an at-large bid should they fail to win the conference tournament. For the guy who approached his old gig like he was drinking a beer on a couch with his buddy, explaining why this job suits him best is easy.

"A lot of my friends were like, 'Hey, I don't know why you'd get back into the grind of coaching? In broadcasting you never lose a game.' And that's true. But I like to say, 'Yeah, but ya never win one either.'"

Other mid-major mastery:

• Tremendous job by Jacksonville head coach Jordan Mincy and athletic director Alex Ricker-Gilbert in surprising redshirt junior guard Thomas Owen with a scholarship after 3½ years as a walk-on. Our advice ... bring the Kleenex for this one:

• Electrifying Missouri State junior guard Isiaih Mosley pumped in 40 points Saturday in a 79-69 win over AP No. 22 Loyola Chicago. It was Mosley's second 40-point game this season, and he became the first Missouri Valley Conference player to do so since Hersey Hawkins of Bradley did it nine times (!) in the 1987-88 season.

• Army trailed arch-rival Navy by as many as 27 Saturday, before rallying for the biggest comeback in Patriot League history. Coach Jimmy Allen's team closed the second half on a 34-12 run over the final 11:34, then got a bucket from Jalen Rucker with 29 seconds to go in OT to allow the Black Knights to "sing second."

• UNC Asheville junior Drew Pember posted a 41-point, 11-rebound effort in an OT win Saturday at Radford. Pember is the first Big South player with a 40-point/10-rebound game since Longwood's Tristan Carey in February of 2013.

• Five teams in college basketball currently have win streaks of at least nine games: Auburn (16), Boise State (13), Houston (9) and two schools separated by just 40 miles: Wagner and Princeton! The Tigers won their 10th straight game Saturday as coach Mitch Henderson's team extended the program's longest win streak since the 2016-2017 season. The Seahawks won their ninth straight Sunday, the third different nine-game win streak since coach Bashir Mason took over the program in 2012.

• UNC Wilmington won four road games in eight days to remain unbeaten in the CAA (6-0). Senior guard Jaylen Sims's dramatic buzzer-beater sealed Thursday's 71-70 win at James Madison.

• With five assists Monday in a win over Eastern Illinois, Belmont's Grayson Murphy passed Eastern Kentucky's Bruce Jones to become the all-time assist leader in the Ohio Valley Conference.

• How's this for balance? All 13 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi players to appear in games this season have scored double figures in at least one game.

• When South Dakota State hosts North Dakota Thursday in Frost Arena they'll do so with the best home winning percentage in all of college basketball over the past decade! The Jackrabbits are 136-7 in Brookings since the 2011-12 season, a .951 winning percentage. Gonzaga is second with a .948 winning percentage.

KC's Mid-Major Top 10 for this week:

1. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (Missouri Valley)

Last week: 1

The Ramblers' stay in that other poll was short, but there's no way The Committee is overreacting to one loss. Saturday's defeat at the hands of Isiaih Mosley and Missouri State was Loyola's first since Thanksgiving -- and the first on U.S. soil all season. (Its only other two losses were to Michigan State and Auburn in the Bahamas.) Make no mistake, coach Drew Valentine's team is the real deal, as Tuesday's bounce-back win against Southern Illinois showed. Circle the Feb. 6 rematch at Missouri State on your calendar.

Next up: at Southern Illinois (Thursday)

2. Davidson Wildcats (Atlantic 10)

Last week: 2

As is the case with Loyola, we just can't drop Davidson, for two reasons: (A) VCU is very good, and (B) 15 wins in 16 games is still remarkable. Prior to Wednesday night, the Wildcats' most recent losses were consecutive games in mid-November to fellow mid-major contenders San Francisco and New Mexico State. There's still not a team in America that will want to see Davidson on its side of the bracket come NCAA tournament time.

Next up: vs. La Salle (Saturday)

3. BYU Cougars (WCC)

Last week: 3

Following a brutal, eight-day stretch that included a home win over Saint Mary's then a road split with Gonzaga (loss) and San Francisco (win), the Cougars (17-4) returned to action with a slightly less daunting week. Sharpshooter extraordinaire Alex Barcello pumped in 22 in a win over San Diego on Thursday; then on Saturday, granite-framed freshman Fousseyni Traore posted his fourth double-double in eight games in a victory over Portland. Coach Mark Pope's team begins a Northern California road trip on Thursday, before rematches with the Dons and Zags in early February, this time in Provo.

Next up: at Santa Clara (Thursday)

4. Colorado State Rams (Mountain West)

Last week: 5

In a league filled with big-time players, there's simply no better one-two combination than David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens. Roddy is sixth in the Mountain West in both scoring (18.6 PPG) and rebounding (7.9 RPG), while Stevens leads the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio while averaging 15.1 PPG. Though the Rams' lone loss, a 30-point thumping at San Diego State, is a sore thumb, coach Niko Medved's team remains one of just two teams in Division I with only one defeat (Auburn).

Next up: vs. UNLV (Friday)

5. Murray State Racers (Ohio Valley)

Last week: 7

The Racers made it three wins in five days and eight straight overall following victories over Eastern Illinois, UT Martin and Tennessee Tech. But it's the way they're winning that's sending shivers throughout the Ohio Valley. Murray State is 8-0 in conference play, with an average margin of victory of 21.8 points, including an eye-opening 22-point road win versus Belmont. Just five teams in Division I score it better than coach Matt McMahon's team, whose lone loss in the past two months came at Auburn. Can you say legit?

Next up: at Tennessee Tech (Thursday)

6. Saint Mary's Gaels (WCC)

Last week: 6

The folks in Moraga, California, celebrated the Missouri State win over Loyola Chicago on Saturday as much as anyone west of the Missouri River. The Gaels' December victory over the Bears further strengthens a résumé that includes a Quadrant 1 win at Utah State and three Quadrant 2 wins. Want to build that résumé even more? Take care of business on Thursday at San Francisco.

Next up: at San Francisco (Thursday)

7. UAB Blazers (Conference USA)

Last week: 8

The Blazers ended Louisiana Tech's 19-game home win streak on Saturday with an 83-76 decision in Ruston. Jordan "Jelly" Walker tied a UAB record with nine 3-pointers en route to a career-high 36 points. UAB's top four scorers all made their way to Birmingham via the transfer portal: Walker (Tulane), Quan Jackson (Georgia Southern), KJ Buffen (Ole Miss) and Michael Ertel (UL Monroe).

Next up: at Western Kentucky (Thursday)

8. Boise State Broncos (Mountain West)

Last week: 9

Senior forward Abu Kigab helped the Broncos finish off another a perfect week on Tuesday with a gigantic 65-62 win over Wyoming. After the Cowboys took a 60-58 lead with 2:46 to play, Kigab scored BSU's final seven points. With victories over Utah State (Thursday) and San Diego State (Saturday), coach Leon Rice's club made it six wins in 13 days in five different states -- while extending its overall win streak to 13 in a row. In an absolutely loaded Mountain West, the team to beat resides in Boise, Idaho.

Next up: at Fresno State (Friday)

9. Iona Gaels (MAAC)

Last week: Unranked

A warm welcome back to America's most trusted poll for coach Rick Pitino's club, which continues to mow down the MAAC. On Tuesday, the Gaels swatted Siena 74-57 thanks, in part, to a season-high 11 blocked shots. Two days earlier, top scorer Tyson Jolly exploded for 20 points in Iona's win over Quinnipiac. Iona is 11-1 since Dec. 1, with its lone defeat coming at the hands of Saint Louis by a slim point. The proof is in the people, and the players ... well, this group is a problem.

Next up: vs. Saint Peter's (Sunday)

10. San Francisco Dons (WCC)

Last week: Unranked

Welcome back to the Top 10, USF, following a week in which the Dons lost to Gonzaga but bounced back with a thrashing of Pepperdine in Malibu, California. Coach Todd Golden's team still has a résumé that is at-large worthy, thanks to wins over Davidson and UAB -- and losses to only Grand Canyon, Loyola Chicago, BYU and Gonzaga.

Next up: vs. Saint Mary's (Thursday)

Others receiving votes: North Texas, Wyoming

Dropped out: San Diego State (No. 4), Ohio (No. 10)

ESPN Stats & Information researcher Jared Berson contributed to this article.

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