With six regular season games remaining, the UTEP Miners have put themselves in position to finish top-four in Conference USA and secure a bye to the league tournament, which starts three weeks from today.
To get there, however, they’ll need to navigate a string of four consecutive road games, which starts on Thursday at North Texas.
The Miners (9-15, 7-5 C-USA) are tied for fifth place in the C-USA standings with Marshall and Rice. UTEP is a half-game behind Old Dominion and UAB, who are tied for third place. The Miners will host Old Dominion on March 2. But coach Tim Floyd is taking it one game at a time, and his focus is solely on the Mean Green, which brings a 7-17 overall mark and 1-11 league record into Thursday’s matchup.
UTEP was 2-13 at one point, so Floyd knows all about the hardships the Mean Green has faced in 2016-17.
“We’re just going to try to get ready for North Texas, knowing that they have experienced what we experienced early in the year and they’re dangerous,” he said. “We have not been tremendous on the road, although we won our last game. We’re going to try to go on the road and defend, not turn it over, try to get to the foul line, try to keep the other team off the foul line, and you always have to rebound on the road. You’ve got to limit second chance opportunities. So to make it simple, that’s what we’re focusing on.”
How dangerous is North Texas? The Mean Green has lost six times by seven points or less, dropping close decisions to UAB (54-52), Charlotte (82-81) and Old Dominion (73-67) on its home floor. North Texas has had the back-to-back Conference USA Freshman of the Week in A.J. Lawson (Feb. 6) and Ryan Woolridge (Feb. 13).
“They shoot it well, and I think they shoot it better than what they have shot it,” Floyd said. “They have two guys that we elected to try to completely take out of the game a year ago that are not starting for them, which tells me that they’re deeper, that they feel better about their perimeter. They’ve got 4’s and 5’s that also step out and shoot it. Actually those guys are shooting as many as threes and for a better percentage than the perimeter players. So that becomes a test for guys like Matt Willms, who have to step out on the floor and go guard at the three-point line.”
The Miners want to continue to play stifling defense – they have allowed less than 60 points in three of the last four games – while continuing to grow offensively.
“We need to go out and get something established early on the road,” Floyd said. “At times that has been a test for us over at Southern Miss, at UTSA, at New Mexico, at Western Kentucky. Just getting out of the gate, not playing stale early, taking good shots which we do, but making some of those shots. That’s what was so encouraging about our homestand. We really got comfortable offensively in our last ballgame [versus Southern Miss].”
The mantra is one game at a time, and it starts on Thursday in Denton.
“We’re just telling them about North Texas right now,” Floyd said. “And then if we get that one, we’ll talk about Rice. I don’t want them seeing anything beyond the day-to-day improvement, which is what we have focused on. We can focus on trying to defend better, rebound the ball better, trying to take care of the ball better and better shot selection, every single day. Right now I don’t want our guys thinking way too much. I want them thinking very simple, and I think that’s the best way to do it for this group.”
The game will be nationally televised on beIN Sports (Spectrum El Paso Digital Channel 417, DIRECTV Channel 620, dish Channel 392) beginning at 6 p.m. MT.
MINERS IN DEPTH
– UTEP (9-15, 7-5 C-USA) plays the first of four consecutive road games on Thursday at North Texas (7-17, 1-11 C-USA).
– The game will be nationally televised on beIN Sports with a 6 p.m. MT tipoff.
– The Miners will also play at Rice (Saturday), Florida Atlantic (Feb. 23) and FIU (Feb. 25) as it completes the road portion of its regular season schedule.
– UTEP is 1-6 on the road in 2016-17 but played well on its last C-USA road trip. The Miners dropped a 65-62 decision at WKU on Jan. 26 before pounding Marshall in Huntington, 91-68, on Jan. 28.
– UTEP hasn’t posted consecutive C-USA road victories since Feb. 11-13, 2016, when it swept the Florida trip with victories over FIU (84-74) and Florida Atlantic (89-82). The Miners are 1-8 on the road since.
– UTEP is playing four consecutive conference road games for the first time since Jan. 27-Feb. 5, 2005, when it faced SMU, LA Tech, Tulsa and Rice in succession.
– The Miners have won seven of their last nine games and are chasing a top-four seed in the Conference USA Championships March 8-11. UTEP enters play Thursday tied with Marshall and Rice for fifth place. UTEP is a half-game behind Old Dominion and UAB, who are tied for third place.
ABOUT NORTH TEXAS
– The Mean Green has dropped a bunch of close games in a 7-17 season. North Texas has lost six times by seven points or less, three times to Conference USA opponents at The Super Pit. The Mean Green was beaten by UAB 54-52, Charlotte 82-81 and Old Dominion 73-67.
– North Texas is 0-5 at home in C-USA play with an average margin of loss of seven points, after winning six of nine non-conference home games.
– The Mean Green has lost 12 of its last 13 games overall after starting the season 6-5.
– Guard A.J. Lawson leads North Texas and ranks first among C-USA freshmen in scoring, averaging 11.1 points per game.
– Senior guard J-Mychal Reese is averaging 10.3 ppg, and freshman guard Ryan Wooldridge is averaging 9.5 ppg. Reese is the team’s leading scorer in C-USA games with 13.0 ppg.
– Lawson was named the C-USA Freshman of the Week for the second time this season on Feb. 6. Woolridge was selected C-USA Freshman of the Week on Monday.
– The Mean Green is playing short-handed with junior forward Jeremy Combs (10.2 ppg/6.4 rpg) and senior guard Keith Frazier (8.0 ppg) out for the season. Last week, North Texas played without senior guard Deckie Johnson (8.1 ppg) but split its Florida road trip.
– North Texas is fourth in C-USA in field goal percentage defense (.423) and fifth in steals (6.2 spg).
– North Texas Head Coach Tony Benford was an assistant coach at UTEP — for a little under a month. He was appointed to Doc Sadler’s staff on July 21, 2006. When Sadler stepped down to become the head coach at Nebraska two and a half weeks later, Benford joined him in Lincoln.
– Mean Green Assistant Coach David Anwar was also a member of Sadler’s UTEP staff, serving as Director of Basketball Operations from 2004-06.
– North Texas Associate Head Coach Rob Evans played and coached at I-10 rival NM State.
– UTEP holds an 8-2 edge in the series and has won eight straight over the Mean Green.
– UTEP is 3-2 all-time versus North Texas in Denton.
– The last time UTEP and North Texas squared off at The Super Pit, the Miners opened the C-USA schedule with an 85-71 victory on Jan. 2, 2015. Omega Harris and Matt Willms are the only members of this year’s squad to appear in that game. Harris scored 12 points with three three-pointers in 32 minutes. Willms played 22 minutes and scored two points with one rebound.
– The Miners also played at The Super Pit on March 2, 2014 and won 74-54. Willms scored 14 points with eight rebounds and three blocks in 23 minutes, and Jake Flaggert scored nine points (3-for-4 FGs, 2-for-2 3FGs) in 22 minutes. The nine points were a season-high for Flaggert’s freshman year.
– In four matchups as Conference USA members, UTEP’s average margin of victory has been 16.5 points.
THE LAST MEETING
– Hooper Vint scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half and added 12 rebounds for his second career double-double as UTEP edged North Texas, 84-75, on Jan. 3, 2016 at the Haskins Center.
– The Miners trailed the Mean Green 71-70 with 4:05 remaining. That was North Texas’ only lead of the game, and the Miners outscored the visitors 14-4 down the stretch to restore order.
– North Texas made 16-of-32 free throws, undermining an efficient second half where it scored 44 points and shot 51.6 percent from the field.
– The Miners led by 10 (41-31) at halftime. North Texas made nine of its first 12 shots to start the second half and scored 22 points in a little over six minutes to get back in it.
– After Deckie Johnson shot the Mean Green into the lead with a three-pointer, Lee Moore scored to put UTEP ahead for good. Over the last 3:19 the Miners were 8-for-13 at the line and North Texas was 4-for-9. Vint scored eight points during that stretch.
– Moore scored 15 points, Omega Harris 13 and Dominic Artis 11 for UTEP. The Miners were beaten on the boards (50-43), but they did close the gap in the final minutes behind Vint, Moore (eight rebounds) and Terry Winn (eight).
– The Miners limited North Texas’ Johnson and Ja’Michael Brown to eight and five points respectively. Johnson was averaging a team-leading 14.6 ppg coming in and Brown scored 21 off the bench at UTSA two nights earlier.
– The Mean Green’s J-Mychael Reese scored 17 points, but he shot 5-for-21 from the floor. Jeremy Combs collected 20 points and 19 rebounds to lead UNT.
LAST GAME: UTEP 80, SOUTHERN MISS 50
– Dominic Artis scored six of his 20 points during a 16-0 run early in the second half as UTEP thumped Southern Miss, 80-50, on Feb. 11 in the Don Haskins Center
– The Miners made 12 three-pointers, their second-most in a game this season, led by Artis who was 6-for-9 from long range. UTEP finished 12-for-23 from beyond the arc and shot 52.9 percent from the field on a night where Southern Miss’ game plan was to take the Miners’ inside game away.
– The Miners led 41-31 at the half despite scoring just four points in the paint. They were 7-for-14 from beyond the arc over the opening 20 minutes.
– Southern Miss cut it to nine (45-36) on a layup by Raheem Watts with 16:48 to play before UTEP went on the 16-0 run to take command.
– In their last three home games versus the Golden Eagles, the Miners have had runs of 17-0 (2015), 13-0 (2016) and 16-0.
– Artis had 10 assists and six rebounds. Omega Harris scored 17 points and Jake Flaggert hit three threes on a night where Matt Willms and Paul Thomas combined for 13 points, including four in the first half.