The good feelings keep coming for No. 19 Florida Atlantic.
The next step in what’s shaping up as an historic season comes Thursday night on the road against Alabama-Birmingham in a rematch of one of the most memorable games of the Owls’ run.
And their opponent is hoping it has one of its key players back in the lineup.
Florida Atlantic (21-1, 11-0 Conference USA) enters the game holding the highest national ranking in program history and riding the nation’s longest active winning streak at 20.
“It feels great to know that all of our hard work is being noticed,” Florida Atlantic guard Michael Forrest said. “At the same time, we’re also staying humble because we know that we have a lot more to accomplish.”
Among the Owls’ accomplishments thus far is the perfect start to conference play, though seven of their 11 Conference USA wins have been by single digits.
“We’re taking some haymakers from some really good teams,” Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May said.
Some of those haymakers came at the hands of Thursday’s opponent.
In the teams’ first meeting of the season, on Jan. 5 in Boca Raton, Fla., the Owls and Blazers traded jabs to the tune of 14 ties and 18 lead changes. Florida Atlantic’s Johnell Davis broke an 84-84 tie with a layup with 15 second remaining, then sealed an 88-86 win with a pair of free throws with four seconds to play.
That contest began a run of three straight losses and five defeats in six games for UAB (15-7, 6-5). The Blazers have since won two straight.
The main reason for those two victories was forward KJ Buffen, who on Monday was named Conference USA player of the week. Buffen produced back-to-back double-doubles in victories over Louisiana Tech and Rice, averaging 15.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in those games.
Buffen’s season average of 10.5 points per game ranks third on UAB, behind Jordan Walker’s 23.8 ppg and Eric Gaines’ 12.9 ppg. But Walker, who scored 21 points in the first game against the Owls, hasn’t played since Jan. 11 because of a bruised foot.
“We’re so fortunate to be at UAB, there’s some great doctors right here in our backyard, literally,” Blazers coach Andy Kennedy said. “(Walker has) seen everybody and everybody has cleared him. Now it’s kind of up to his ability to handle the pain. He’s got to figure that out.”
Walker has been limited in practice, though he has been on the court this week.
“We’re doing everything we can to get me back out there as fast as possible,” Walker said of returning for games.
The Blazers will look to repeat their defensive effort from their most recent game, a 70-52 win over Rice on Saturday in Houston. They held Rice to 15 first-half points and to a season-low 33.3 percent shooting from the field for the game.
UAB will have Ty Brewer and Javian Davis available Thursday night after they were suspended for the Saturday game, Kennedy said.
Regardless of the lineup, the Blazers have to be in sync.
“We’ve got to play smart basketball,” Kennedy said.
Florida Atlantic tends to receive widespread contributions. The Owls got 34 points from reserves on Saturday in a 70-63 home victory against Western Kentucky.
“Just like all of the other wins this year, it was a team effort,” May said. “We did a lot of good things and everyone stepped up.”
UAB leads the all-time series 12-4. The Owls, though, benefitted from a 39-30 rebounding advantage in the first game this season.
Last season, UAB won both matchups, with the second coming in the conference tournament.
–Field Level Media