BIRMINGHAM, Ala — Three hours before UAB met N.C. State in the NIT on Saturday, some Blazers players gathered around the TV. The purpose: Root for North Carolina to defeat Mississippi State.
"We were banking on Mississippi State to lose," said UAB forward Howard Crawford, who grew up a Vince Carter fan when Carter played for the Tar Heels. "When we saw dude [Larry Drew II] score that last layup, we were really excited and knew we had to beat North Carolina State so they could come to Bartow Arena."
Only in the NIT could North Carolina, the defending national champion, play at UAB. During the regular season, Conference USA teams such as UAB often travel or get home-and-home games against middle-of-the-pack teams from power conferences.
"I don't think North Carolina is going to give us a home-and-home," UAB athletic director Brian Mackin said. "North Carolina is probably considered one of the most established programs in the country, so it's very special for our fans for them to come here."
The teams have played once before, two decades ago. Dean Smith and North Carolina defeated Gene Bartow and UAB 77-59 in the second round of the 1986 NCAA Tournament in Utah.
On Tuesday, when North Carolina and UAB play for a spot in New York, the programs still operate in different universes.
North Carolina generated $19.9 million in basketball revenue in 2008-09, according to U.S. Department of Education figures. UAB brought in $2.5 million in basketball - and spent $2.6 million.
"This is real cool to know they won the national championship just a year ago, and now they're coming into little ol' Birmingham to play UAB," Blazers guard Aaron Johnson said. "It's going to be a real exciting game. We're going to be even more pumped up because these are the kinds of games we dream about - the Dukes and North Carolinas and Kansases."
UAB and North Carolina players come from different recruiting worlds. Johnson recalled that he played against Drew, the Tar Heels' point guard, at a 17-and-under AAU tournament.
"He was playing with [blue-chip prospects] James Harden and Austin Daye," Johnson said. "He's not going to remember me, but I played against him before. They're the McDonald's All-Americans. We're the people nobody wants. But it's going to be fun on Tuesday."
UAB guard Jamarr Sanders said the Blazers won't be intimidated by the name on North Carolina's jersey or the "quote unquote" high school All-Americans on the Tar Heels' roster.
"If anything, we're going to come out and play even harder to prove to people who doubt us, who don't think we can play to that level," he said.