Talking about the UTEP Miners brings back a sort of nostalgia.
It’s not a nostalgia for bygone times of excellence for the 4 or 5 different games at Hofheinz Pavilion from 2007-13 where I watched where the Cougars and Miners play a Conference USA league game. I don’t believe ‘excellence’ would be the right adjective for that point of Cougar basketball.
I do remember listening on my apartment's stereo in January of 2009 and feeling a real surge of optimism when the Cougars defeated the Miners 94-86. But I also remember the 62-55 loss later that season in Houston while Aubrey Coleman served a 1-game suspension for ‘Stepgate 2009’ involving one of Coleman’s sneakers and Chase Buddinger’s face.
Appropriately, given it came during the James Dickey era, the last game between UH and UTEP was an 80-69 Cougar loss to bow out of the quarterfinals of the 2013 Conference USA tournament. It was the very last CUSA men’s basketball contest UH participated in, officially ending the most forgettable era of the program’s history.
The last decade or so hasn’t been all sunshine for the Miners, either. And this is a proud program, I would argue the most closely followed of all the teams in the city. Almost exactly 12 months ago I passed through El Paso on a trip and on my side-trip to the UTEP campus I saw a 20+ foot tiled mosaic of legendary Miners coach Don Haskins.
Even if it was 50+ years ago, the Miners were the first and to date only Texas team to capture an NCAA Tournament title and their fans rightly still take pride in this fact.
Tony Barbee coached the last Miner team to go to the NCAA tournament in 2010, the same season the Coogs had a shock CUSA tournament run and beat the Miners in the tournament title game.
Bizarrely, Tim Floyd was given just over 7 years in El Paso without making an NCAA tournament appearance before getting fired after a 1-5 start to the 2017-18 season. UTEP looked to Fresno State head coach and longtime Texas Longhorns assistant Rodney Terry to re-capture the magic.
After a ‘year zero’ situation in Terry’s first season in El Paso where the Miners were awful, the current team is dramatically improved. Terry has relied heavily on transfers with 12 players on the current Miner roster starting their collegiate career at another Division 1 college or a junior college.
None of those transfers have been more critical than junior forward Bryson Williams, who played 2 years for Terry at Fresno State (also a native of Fresno, CA) and sat out last season. Williams is 12th in the country with a 71.8% True Shooting % and has been among the best in the country at drawing fouls (a bugaboo for the current Cougar team). He is also 10 for 15 on his 3-pointers for the current season.
What makes Williams so scary is he not only gets to the free throw line a bunch but is making 86% of his free throws. Unsurprisingly he leads the Miners in scoring (19.9 pts/game) and rebounding (7.0 rebs/game).
The only other Miner player who’s been a consistent threat offensively is sophomore Souley Boum, a transfer from the University of San Francisco who also sat out last year. Boum is the only other Miner player averaging double digit points (11.9 pts) and is shooting 92.6% on free throws.
The other regular starters for the Miners have been sophomore Jordan Lathon and grad student Darryl Edwards (a Fresno native who played previous at LSU). Neither guy has great offensive numbers, but both are tough, defense-first brawlers.
With the exception of Williams, the calling card of this team has been a smothering defense that’s ranked 47th in the country in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency as of this morning. The Miners are also 26th nationally in opponent effective FG % and 18th in opponent turnover %.
One area where the Coogs will have a significant edge is on the boards, where UTEP is 341st nationally in offensive rebound % and 224th in opponent offensive rebound %. After 2 not vintage efforts on the glass against UT-Arlington and Oklahoma State, I expect a special emphasis has been places on rebounding in recent practices.
Tonight’s game will be the first time in the current season UTEP has played a top 50 KenPom team and only the 2nd time they’ll be playing away from El Paso. Their only prior road trip was a short trip west on I-10 to New Mexico State, a game they lost 59-56 on December 3rd.
Make no mistake though, UTEP is a tough team who will test a Cougar team that looked pretty human for large stretches their last time on the court.