LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The U.S. Basketball Writers Association membership votes annually on a variety of awards, among them the Henry Iba Award for national Coach of the Year.
As one of the USBWA officers, I was privy to the voting breakdown. And I have to admit, my eyebrows arched in disbelief when one ballot came in with the following vote for the Iba Award:
Jerod Haase, UAB.
At the time ballots were counted, this seemed like voting Pat Paulsen for president. Haase’s Blazers were 16-15 and apparently going nowhere – not to the NCAA tournament, and certainly not to the round of 32.
But today that voter – Mr. Woody Woodrum of Herd Insider, a Marshall fan publication – looks like the smartest guy in the basketball writer room. Because No. 13 seed UAB pulled the first shocker of the NCAA tournament, beating No. 3 seed Iowa State 60-59 here Thursday, and Haase coached circles around much-respected Cyclones boss Fred Hoiberg.
So it was clearly time to track down Woodrum and find out what gave him superior insight in Haase’s work.
“I just thought no one came from less expectations than UAB this year, and they were 4-9 to open non-conference play with a young team,” Woodrum said. “Then to win the league after being picked to barely make the [Conference USA] tournament. So I thought he did a great job with so little that he deserved the vote.”
Saturday, Woodrum’s Coach of the Year will take on 11th-seeded UCLA in a South Region bracket-collapse game in Louisville, with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16 in Houston. UAB lost to the Bruins by a dozen points in the Bahamas in November – but given the radical makeover Haase has done on his team since then, that game film may be totally useless to UCLA coach Steve Alford.
UAB was a partially complete jigsaw puzzle back then – some pieces on the floor, under the couch, missing. Haase, in his third season, had to find them all and make them fit.
Haase is a branch on the Roy Williams coaching tree – he was a floor-diving fool for Williams at Kansas, then worked for 12 years under him at both Kansas and North Carolina before getting his first head-coaching job at UAB in 2012.
He’d lost five of its top six scorers from last year’s 18-13 team – and the one returnee contributed zero points and two rebounds in 10 minutes against Iowa State Thursday. All 60 of the Blazers’ points against the Cyclones were scored by freshmen, sophomores or Virginia Tech transfer Robert Brown. That’s why it took this team so long to coalesce, starting 4-9.
Nobody knew each other. That’s where a summer trip to Spain became a major bonding event.
“I vividly remember early on in that trip, we sat down for a team meal and I don’t think there was one thing said,” Haase said. “They all kind of looked at each other – nine new faces, four guys that put on a UAB jersey before this year.
“By the end of that trip, they were hanging out as a group. It was like a flock of geese. Anywhere one went, the others went.”
But there’s bonding, and then there’s basketball. Haase had to work on his lineup, redefining roles and reapportioning playing time, as the season went along.
Freshman forward William Lee moved into the starting lineup and senior C.J. Washington moved out – and Lee was the star late against Iowa State, making a contested foul-line jump shot and two free throws in the final 30 seconds.
Sophomore guard Tyler Madison shot 14 3-pointers in the first 11 games, and has shot one in the following 24. Forward Chris Cokley got more playing time and became an impact contributor.
“The guys all talked a big game about wanting to win, and everyone said that’s what they want,” Haase said. “And they basically said, ‘Coach, you come up wtih a gameplan.’ We did.
“We told certain guys that you can have a huge impact on the team, you can have a huge role on the team, but shooting 3s may or may not be where it’s at. So we really defined shot selection and told them what the parameters were going to be.”
The pieces gradually came together, but UAB still needed to win the C-USA tournament – in Birmingham, a fortuitous locale for a team that hadn’t won a road game since Jan. 31 – to make the NCAA tourney. And even there, the Blazers needed to score the last five points in the final minute of a quarterfinal game against Western Kentucky to reach the semifinals.
Without that rally, there was no Cinderella moment a week later against Iowa State.
But when UAB got its chance against an Iowa State team that had become a trendy Final Four pick, the Blazers were ready.
Haase had a gameplan that clogged up Iowa State’s free-flowing offense, and the Blazers destroyed the finesse-oriented Cyclones on the glass. But mostly, he had a No. 14 seed that wasn’t even expected to be here in the perfect frame of mind.
“We didn’t talk about ‘One Shining Moment’ or anything like that,” Haase said, discussing the game with something approaching a killjoy detachedness. “We talked about winning the game.”
In Williams’ third season at Kansas, he took the Jayhawks to the national championship game. Haase isn’t likely to do that this year at UAB, but he’s established himself as a coach on the rise in the profession.
And, to at least one prescient Iba Award voter, as the national Coach of the Year.