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on November 02, 2016 at 12:51 AM, updated November 02, 2016 at 8:59 AM
Deion Lavender is all smiles when he thinks about UAB's exhibition opener against Lindenwood on Thursday night at Bartow Arena.
For one, the redshirt sophomore guard will get to play in his first game in front of fans in more than a year. He transferred from Southern Illinois after the 2014-15 season, sitting out last year to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements.
Also, Lindenwood was the first school to offer Lavender. The Division II school in Saint Charles, Mo., is near his hometown of Alton, Ill. Both towns are also close to St. Louis, Mo.
"It's a pretty special moment for me," he said, adding that his family will make the eight-hour trip for the game.
It's also been a trying year for Lavender. The 6-foot-4, 192-pound combo guard has meshed well with UAB, but sitting out after scoring 8.6 points per game in Missouri Valley Conference games with 11 conference starts wasn't easy.
"It was probably one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life," he said. "Being away from the game and having to sit on the sidelines and watch the guys play every night was definitely difficult."
Kevin Devitt, now a full-time assistant under first-year head coach Robert Ehsan, had a connection with an AAU coach of Lavender and alerted UAB coaches about him after the 2014-15 season when Devitt was in a UAB operations role.
"He was the man behind the scenes pulling strings for me," Lavender said. "He put my name in the coaching staff's ear and from then on, they probably went on and watched film."
Ehsan said that they also got good recommendations about Lavender from other MVC coaches. He took an official visit to the school and was considering Tulsa, but later found out Tulsa had filled its scholarship spots.
"Ultimately, I think UAB was going to be my final decision," Lavender said. "Most of the guys were gone when I came on my official visit. It was just me and the coaches. We related on a different level than I had related with a coaching staff. They were a genuine coaching staff that cared about the kids. It showed when I got here that they were really genuine about what they said.
"They told you the truth about everything. That enabled me to put some trust in them and come eight hours away from home."
Lavender could fill the void that graduating senior Robert Brown left. Brown was another transfer success story to UAB, sitting out the 2013-14 season after coming from Virginia Tech. He could start at one of two wing spots or back up Nick Norton at the point.
"He's very versatile," Ehsan said. "He can do so many things well. He's a very well-rounded player. He's going to definitely help us and wear a couple of hats.
"He's in that discussion (to start). He's in the top seven guys. We're very spread even, but he's definitely up there."
Lavender shot 82.6 percent from the line and 43 percent from the field as a true freshman at SIU, and scored 11.2 ppg over the final 10 games. He left, though, citing a "long, hard season that didn't really go as planned."
UAB will be the beneficiary. He said he will adjust to whatever role he's given. But it looks like it will be a big one.
"It doesn't really bother me, as long as I get to play," Lavender said. "I don't care if I start or if I'm the last guy on the bench. I'm just happy to be playing.
"Being able to play this year, I've got an extra boost of confidence. I'm more motivated and ready to play in the season."
Thursday's game tips off at 7:30 p.m., following the UAB women's 5 p.m. exhibition game against Tuskegee.