At a Crossroads in the Season, UTEP Must Regroup Amid a 3 Game Skid
Editor's note: I'm back! I was off these past two weeks to celebrate my marriage with my new wife, Alyssa. I'm happy to be back in the mix and ready to talk about some UTEP hoops. Tune in to MinerTalk after Saturday's UTEP-LA Tech contest, presented by the Oscar Arrieta Agency, along with Sal Montes.
To tip off the second weekend of 2023, Conference USA men's basketball is stacked with talent from top to bottom. If one had to split up the conference into tiers, here's how I think things would look:
Tier 1: The Top Dogs
- Florida Atlantic - #12 Net Ranking
- UAB - #57 Net Ranking
- North Texas - #39 Net Ranking
Tier 2: Dark Horse Contenders
- Charlotte - #86 Net Ranking
- Middle Tennessee - #125 Net Ranking
- LA Tech - #146 Net Ranking
Tier 3: Don't Sleep on Us
- Rice - #162 Net Ranking
- Western Kentucky - #202 Net Ranking
Tier 4: A Year Away, But Not This Year
- Florida International - #258 Net Ranking
- UTSA - #303 Net Ranking
In this competitive league, which already includes five teams with double-figure wins, where do the Miners stand? UTEP (8-6, 1-2 C-USA) is currently ranked No. 200 by the Net Rankings and No. 200 by KenPom. The Miners have lost three straight games and have back-to-back overtime losses to UAB (79-73, 2OT) and Rice (72-67, OT), respectively.
Based on my makeshift model, maybe UTEP is somewhere between Tier 2 and Tier 3. Opposing teams can't take UTEP lightly, but at the same time, the Miners still have inconsistencies that have hurt them in recent losses.
Some can point to last year's midseason turnaround and suggest the Miners can still become a contender this year. Hell, it's still a really long season ahead for league play. UTEP started off 1-3 in C-USA last year before winning six straight and finishing fourth overall in the conference. Granted, last year's team had bonafide veteran talents like Souley Boum, Jamal Bieniemy and Keonte Kennedy. This year's squad features 10 newcomers that are still trying to develop cohesion four games into league play.
The fear, however, is that UTEP may not turn it around. If the slide continues, we might think of UTEP as a "Year Away..." team. They have the defense. They've proven they can compete against the best in the conference. They closed out and won tight games earlier this year. They just need to get their swagger back, be more confident at the free throw line, execute on defense in late-game situations and rebound the basketball. Easier said than done for the Miners.
At a crossroads in their season, the Miners have to hope they can snap their three-game losing streak on the road against a tough LA Tech team on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 1 p.m. MST and can be heard on 600 ESPN El Paso. The game will be streamed via C-USA TV.
A look back at UAB, vs. Rice
I went back and watched both overtime losses to see what stood out to me in the Miners' losses to UAB and Rice.
Against UAB, I felt like the Miners had total control in the second half in order to beat one of the best teams in the conference. In fact, the Miners led by as much as 11 with just 15 minutes to go in the game. UTEP was even able to force 25 turnovers against a talented Blazers bunch. It looked to be the upset of the century after Shamar Givance buried a 3-pointer to put the Miners up by one point. The disgraceful foul by Calvin Solomon as time expired in regulation allowed UAB to tie it (UAB should've won it here with three free throw attempts). The Miners ultimately couldn't seize the opportunity to knock off UAB in regulation. UTEP was lucky to tie the game in the first OT and the Blazers simply outlasted them in the second overtime. The Miners shot a poor 14-of-25 from the free throw line (56%) in the game.
Still, one could leave this game with positive thoughts, thinking the Miners had an NCAA Tournament-caliber team on the ropes, dominated for 25+ minutes and should've won.
But against Rice, the positive energy went out the window. UTEP played the Owls as poorly as they could following an emotional double-overtime loss. Rice had a 16-0 run and the Miners went 6:30 without scoring before the end of the first half (32-25). The Owls built on their lead and led by as much as 15 (49-34) with under 12 minutes to play. Then, the rally for the Miners started as guys like Calvin Solomon and Shamar Givance got hot. UTEP's 12-0 run made the game a single-digit game around the seven minute mark. Both teams traded runs to close out the game and Solomon went 1-of-2 from the free throw line in the closing seconds to send the game into overtime. Rice, who was the better team for the majority of the game, was able to shrug off the Miners in extra time and left the emotional game victorious, 72-67. Once again, you can point out the abysmal 10-of-20 (50%) free throw percentage in the loss to the Owls at home.
LA Tech feels like a must-win
Amid the three-game losing streak, the Miners are still positive about flipping the season around. They have a chance to sweep LA Tech for the first time in men's basketball since the 2003-04 season. But it won't be easy against a Bulldog team that has won three of their last four.
LA Tech (9-6, 2-2 C-USA) is coming off a triumphant 88-82 overtime win at Rice. UTEP most recently beat LA Tech in mid-December (60-55) at the Haskins Center. The Bulldogs are led by guard Cobe Williams (18 points, 2.8 steals per game). They also have a duo of players that average double figures scoring—Isaiah Crawford (13 points per game) and Keaston Willis (12.3 ppg).
UTEP will enter this game shooting 60.1% from the free throw line, which is among the bottom five of NCAA Division I college basketball. Conversely, their 25.6 free throw attempts rank 10th in NCAA (1st in C-USA). The Miners' defense forces 18 turnovers per game, ranking 18th in NCAA (2nd in C-USA). They also have the league's second-best perimeter defense, holding teams to 28.4% shooting from 3-point range.
Let's see if this is the week the Miners attempt to turn things around.
Other UTEP news: Miners grab East Carolina transfer Elijah Jones
A surprise came UTEP's way this week as East Carolina true freshman forward Elijah Jones committed to play with the Miners. He will continue to redshirt this year and will be eligible in the fall for four years.
He's a 6-foot-8 forward from Pleasantville, N.J. Similar to how UTEP recruited players like Kevin Kalu from the Baltimore area, Jones played prep hoops at Mt. Zion Prep in Maryland. In fact, Otis Frazier III played at Mt. Zion Prep during his high school tenure. Jones had offers out of high school from the likes of St. Bonaventure, UMass, Old Dominion and Hofstra.
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