Over the next two weeks, the UTEP men’s basketball team will face four teams currently ranked in the top-five of the Conference USA standings. It all starts on Thursday when the Miners meet UAB in Birmingham.
UAB is 13-7 overall, 4-3 in C-USA and 10-1 at Bartow Arena. The Blazers are two games behind front-running Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee and WKU, who are all 6-1 in league play. Marshall stands a game back at 5-2.
The Miners will play at defending C-USA champ Middle Tennessee on Saturday, then host WKU and Marshall next week.
“No question, it’s a tough stretch going to UAB and Middle,” UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “They are probably two of the most talented teams in our league and I think they are two teams that, if given the opportunity to go to the postseason, could really do some damage. They are both experienced, they’re big, they’re talented, and they really have no weaknesses.
“We’re focused on UAB right now. I thought we had a good practice this morning. We’re all disappointed in a couple of games that we let slip away, but guys keep fighting and that’s all I ask. Every day, every game, every possession, every trip, give it your best effort.”
The Blazers have regained their swagger in 2017-18 with the return of junior guard Nick Norton, who missed all but the first game of last season after sustaining a torn ACL. UAB’s floor general is averaging 8.1 points and a team-high 4.6 assists this season. He is shooting 38.5 percent from beyond the three-point line, and 82.6 percent from the charity stripe.
“Norton is a key cog,” Johnson said. “You saw how they missed him a year ago. They missed that engine, that guy finding the open guy and then if you back off of him, he’s a tremendous threat from the three-point line. I think he might be their most valuable player, even though they have [Chris] Cokley who is a league MVP candidate. Norton is awfully good and really dangerous. A lot of people are doubling Cokley and Norton is left open, and that’s an issue too.”
Cokley has put together a banner senior year, averaging 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds with a .586 field goal percentage and .843 free throw percentage. Freshman guard Zack Bryant has been an impact newcomer, collecting 13.5 ppg and 3.2 apg. Sophomore guard Nate Darling chips in with 10.7 ppg. Senior forward William Lee continues to be the enforcer inside with 2.0 blocks per contest.
The Blazers are first in C-USA in scoring margin (+11.4 ppg), and rebounding margin (+8.3 rpg). They are second in field goal percentage (.494), field goal percentage defense (.411), free throw percentage (.756), three-point field goal percentage defense (.329) and assists (17.5 apg). The Blazers are ninth in the country in rebounding, 20th in field goal percentage and 22nd in assists per game.
Winning at UAB is a tall order for any team, let alone a UTEP squad that could be short-handed once again if Matt Willms is unable to go. The 7’1” Canadian made the trip, but is still being evaluated after coming up hobbling 10 minutes into Saturday’s 65-61 loss at UTSA.
The Miners are hoping for a breakthrough on the road sooner than later after dropping their first four away contests of the season.
“It’s affecting all of us,” Johnson said. “But I’ll tell you this, the first trip to Southern Miss and LA Tech, it was really our first experience on the road and we did not play well. We did not play hard enough. I was actually pleased with our competitive spirit at San Antonio. I thought we fought particularly in the second half, where we have shown signs of being poor defensively. So in that aspect, I was actually happy. We’re all upset about the loss, and I just go back and look at a couple of possessions here and there that could’ve changed the outcome. But at the end of the day, we did continue to fight until the last second.”
Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. MT. beIN Sports will have coverage. Fans in the El Paso market can watch the game online at connect.beinsports.com/us, or on DIRECTV (channel 620), Spectrum (channel 417), Dish Network (channel 392), Xfinity Comcast (channel 268) and AT&T (channel 662/1662).
The Blazers’ junior guard Nick Norton, who missed all but the first game of last season after sustaining a torn ACL, returns for the UTEP game. UAB’s floor general is averaging 8.1 points and a team-high 4.6 assists this season. He is shooting 38.5 percent from beyond the three-point line, and 82.6 percent from the charity stripe.
Forward Chris Cokley has put together a banner senior year, averaging 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds with a .586 field goal percentage and .843 free throw percentage. A year ago, Cokley averaged 12.1 ppg and 6.0 rpg. Freshman guard Zack Bryant has been an impact newcomer, collecting 13.5 ppg and 3.2 apg.
The native of Hastings, Fl. is shooting 46.8 percent from the field, 37.3 percent from outside and 73.4 percent from the line. Sophomore guard Nate Darling chips in with 10.7 ppg, a .481 field goal percentage, .379 three-point percentage and .824 free throw percentage. Senior forward William Lee continues to be the enforcer inside with 2.0 blocks per contest.
The Blazers are first in C-USA in scoring margin (+11.4 ppg), and rebounding margin (+8.3 rpg). They are second in field goal percentage (.494), field goal percentage defense (.411), free throw percentage (.756), three-point field goal percentage defense (.329) and assists (17.5 apg). They are third in scoring offense (78.9 ppg), scoring defense (67.5 ppg), three-point field goal percentage (.368) and assist/turnover ratio (1.4).
Cokley is first in C-USA in rebounding. The Blazers are ninth in the country in rebounding (through games of Jan. 21), 20th in field goal percentage and 22nd in assists per game. Cokley rates 20th nationally in double-doubles with nine. UAB is 10-1 at home this season with the lone loss coming to Middle Tennessee, 63-60, on Dec. 30.
The series is deadlocked 9-9. Of the 17 games the teams have played as C-USA members, 14 have been decided by nine points or less. Three of the last nine meetings have gone to overtime and five of the last eight have been determined by three points or fewer. The Miners beat UAB, 63-59, in El Paso last season. UAB is 6-2 versus UTEP in Birmingham, with all eight games decided by nine points or less.
THE LAST MEETING
Omega Harris scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half as UTEP rallied from an 11-point deficit and beat UAB, 63-59, on Feb. 2, 2017 at the Haskins Center. UTEP shot 31.8 percent in the first half but found its offensive groove over the final 20 minutes, shooting 57.7 percent and outscoring UAB 44-31. After getting dominated on the boards in the first half, the Miners posted a slim rebounding advantage (16-15) after halftime. They also committed just three turnovers in the second half. A 21-6 run in the second half turned a 36-29 deficit into a 50-42 lead. Harris scored eight points in the run, and Dominic Artis finished it off with a three-pointer and a layup off his own steal. The Miners scored eight points off eight UAB turnovers in the second half, and Artis registered four of his career-high tying five steals after halftime. The Blazers cut a 10-point UTEP lead (56-46) down to three on three separate occasions over the last two minutes, but the Miners made just enough timely buckets down the stretch to finish them off. Harris was 7-for-10 from the field and 4-for-4 from the line in the second half. Artis collected 11 points, five rebounds and eight assists. Matt Willms had 14 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. The Miners shot 45.8 percent with only 10 turnovers. UAB shot 39.3 percent and outrebounded UTEP 39-32. Both teams struggled at the line with UTEP finishing 15-for-25 and UAB 9-for-18. The Miners were much better at the stripe in the second half (11-for-15).
Giovanni De Nicolao scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half and made several big plays down the stretch as UTSA rallied past short-handed UTEP, 65-61 on Saturday at the Convocation Center. The Miners only got 10 minutes from Matt Willms before he exited with an injury, and played most of the second half without Paul Thomas who got in foul trouble. They almost held on for an inspired victory, leading for over 34 minutes of the game, but it was the Roadrunners who came up big late. After UTSA opened the game with a three-pointer the Miners scored eight straight points, part of a 21-2 run. UTEP led 21-5 when Kobe Magee hit a jumper at the 12:21 mark. The Miners led 26-16 when Willms went out with 10:23 remaining in the half. Within two minutes, the Roadrunners cut the deficit in half (28-23). UTEP led 42-38 at halftime. Thomas had one foul at halftime. Ninety seconds into the second half, he had four. He played six minutes in the second half. The Miners scored 19 points in the second half, when they shot 20.8 percent (5-for-24) from the field and 13.3 percent (2-for-15) from three-point territory. UTSA only scored 27 and shot 33.3 percent, but it was enough to win. De Nicolao’s layup with 6:50 to play put UTSA in the lead (54-53) for the first time since it was 3-2. That was the start of 10 straight points that he scored for the Roadrunners. Still, the Miners took a 61-60 lead with 41 seconds left when Evan Gilyard fed Thomas for a basket down low. But Nick Allen gave UTSA the lead for good, 62-61, on a jumper with 24 seconds remaining. Then Omega Harris turned it over, and Jhivvan Jackson converted the miscue into a layup. Isiah Osborne missed a three, and the game was all but over. Osborne led the Miners with 20 points. Thomas added 12 points. Keaton Wallace scored 20 points off the bench for UTSA. The Miners did a bang-up job on the Roadrunners’ top player, Jhivvan Jackson. Making his first start, he scored 11 points, making 3-of-14 shots and 1-of-9 three pointers.
Sophomore guard Isiah Osborne recorded his third 20-point game of the 2017-18 campaign at UTSA on Saturday. Osborne led the Miners in both points (20) and rebounds (nine) for the first time this season. He is one of five players to lead the Miners in scoring and rebounding in a game this season, along with Keith Frazier (four times), Paul Thomas (once), Trey Wade (once) and Matt Willms (once). Osborne’s three 20-point games are one shy of team leader Frazier’s four. He is the first UTEP sophomore to score 20 points three times in a season since Vince Hunter compiled seven 20-point outings during the 2014-15 season.
OSBORNE IN LEAGUE PLAY
Isiah Osborne has been the Miners’ best player in C-USA action. In six league games (did not play versus North Texas), Osborne has scored in double figures five times while averaging 17.0 points. That would make him the second highest-scoring sophomore in C-USA play after North Texas’ Roosevelt Smart (22.9 ppg). Osborne is 10th in the league in scoring for conference games only. He is shooting 47.9 percent from the floor, 40.5 percent from three-point range and 65.4 percent from the line versus C-USA competition. In non-conference games, Osborne averaged 6.0 ppg while compiling a .365 field goal percentage, .308 three-point percentage and .522 free throw percentage.
MINERS NEED BALANCE
UTEP dropped to 0-9 this season when two or fewer players score in double figures with Saturday’s 65-61 loss at UTSA. The Miners are 7-3 when three or more players tally 10 points or more. UTEP has had two double figure scorers in three of the last four games — at LA Tech (Isiah Osborne 25 points, Omega Harris 21 points), versus Florida Atlantic (Evan Gilyard 20 points, Harris 11 points) and at UTSA (Osborne 20 points, Paul Thomas 12 points).
UTEP has lost three C-USA games (1-3 record) in which it led at halftime. The Miners were up 30-24 on North Texas at the break (lost 63-62), up 34-29 on Florida Atlantic (lost 73-66) and up 42-38 at UTSA (lost 65-61). A year ago, the Miners were 7-2 in league games where they were ahead at the midway point.
Five of the Miners’ seven league games have been decided by nine or fewer points, including each of the last four. The last three C-USA games were determined by a total of 15 points. UTEP is 1-4 this season in games decided by five points or fewer.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
UTEP was seeking a 40-minute defensive effort at UTSA and got it, as the Roadrunners — who averaged 83.6 ppg coming in — were limited to 65 points. UTSA shot 38.7 percent in the first half and 33.3 percent in the second half. In the previous six C-USA games, opponents averaged 44.8 ppg in the second half while shooting 54.1 (93-for-172) percent from the field. UTSA scored only 27 points in the second half, but the Miners were held to 19 points over the final 20 minutes — their fewest in a half this season. UTEP also limited UTSA to only eight free throw attempts in the second half; the previous six league opponents went to the line a whopping 95 times (15.8 avg.) after the break.
A UTEP team that was already lacking in size lost 7-1 Matt Willms to an injury after 10 minutes at UTSA, and 6-8 Paul Thomas to foul trouble in the opening minutes of the second half. That left 6-7 Jake Flaggert as the Miners’ tallest player and, predictably, they were outrebounded for the third time in seven league games (43-32). In fact, after outrebounding their first three C-USA opponents for the first time since the 2007-08 season, the Miners have now been outboarded in three of the last four contests. UTEP had one offensive rebound at UTSA, a season-low, and it came courtesy of 6-1 point guard Kobe Magee.
OMEGA’S DYNAMITE “D”
He may have only scored nine points, but senior guard Omega Harris delivered an “A+” performance at UTSA on Saturday. Days after battling the flu, he was assigned the Roadrunners’ premier offensive performer in freshman guard Jhivvan Jackson, who was averaging 23.0 ppg in C-USA play. Jackson had scored 20+ points in four straight games and six of the last seven. But with Harris hounding him, Jackson finished with 11 points. He made just 3-of-14 shots from the field and connected on 1-of-9 three-point tries.
Freshman guard Evan Gilyard has been a key figure for UTEP of late, averaging 12.5 points over the last four games while shooting 44.8 percent (13-for-29) from the field, 42.9 percent (6-for-14) from three and 85.7 percent (18-for-21) from the line. He scored in double figures in consecutive games for the first time this season versus Florida Atlantic and FIU, including a UTEP-best 20 points versus the Owls. Gilyard has put together seven turnover-free performances in 2017-18, most recently on Saturday at UTSA when he was on the floor for 14 minutes. He is tied for 10th in C-USA in free throw percentage for league games only (.808).
WADE’S LEAGUE IMPACT
Freshman guard Trey Wade leads UTEP in rebounding (6.1 rpg) and blocks (1.0 bpg) in C-USA play. He pulled down a season-high eight boards versus FIU on Jan. 13, and matched his UTEP-best with four blocks in that game. Wade is also shooting a team-high 54.8 percent from the field against league competition. He has scored in double figures four times in 2017-18, with a season-high 16 points versus Rice on Dec. 30. Wade is seventh in C-USA in field goal percentage for conference games only, 10th in blocks, and tied for 15th in rebounds.
THOMAS SHOWING SIGNS
It’s been an uneven season for junior forward Paul Thomas, but over the last three games he has averaged 10.3 points while shooting 56.5 percent (13-for-23) from the field. Thomas has scored in double figures in back-to-back C-USA games for the first time this season as he posted 10 points versus FIU, and 12 at UTSA. Overall he has tallied 10+ points on eight occasions in 2017-18.
MAGEE LEADS THE LEAGUE
Freshman guard Kobe Magee is shooting 63.6 percent (14-for-22) from three-point range in Conference USA games to rank first in C-USA. Magee also ranks fourth in assist/turnover ratio (2.8) for league games only. Magee, who has started the last 11 games, dished out eight assists at LA Tech — the most by a UTEP player in 2017-18. It also marked the most dimes by a Miner freshman since Malik Alvin recorded eight versus Toledo on Dec. 23, 2006.
FREE THROW SHOOTING COMING AROUND
UTEP made 13-of-22 free throws (59.1 percent) in its first two C-USA games against North Texas and Rice. Since then, the Miners have gone 65-for-92 at the stripe (70.7 percent), including 11-for-13 (84.6 percent) on Saturday at UTSA. During the five-game stretch, Evan Gilyard leads UTEP by going 18-for-21 (85.7 percent) at the foul line. He has made his last 12 free throws entering Thursday’s game at UAB.
STILL ON TOP
The Miners still lead C-USA in three-point field goal percentage (.411) for C-USA games only. UTEP is averaging 8.9 made threes versus league competition (tied for fourth in C-USA). The Miners made 12 threes against Rice, 11 at Southern Miss and 14 at LA Tech, making this the first team in school history to hit 11 or more triples in three consecutive games. Overall UTEP has made eight or more trifectas in five of the last six contests.
BOMBS AWAY FROM THREE
Devoid of an inside game and facing the UTSA zone, the Miners jacked up a season-high 30 three-point attempts at UTSA on Saturday. It marked only the second time that UTEP attempted 30 or more three-point shots versus a C-USA opponent. On Jan. 31, 2007 the Miners went 12-for-37 from beyond the arc at Southern Miss.
Seventy has been a magic number of sorts for the Miners in 2017-18 as six of their seven wins have come when they notch 70 points or more. UTEP is 1-8 when scoring less than 70 points. The Miners are 1-7 when giving up 70 points or more.
HARRIS NOW 13TH ON SCORING LIST
Senior guard Omega Harris scored 20+ points for the second time this season, and the 13th time in his career at LA Tech on Jan. 6. He currently stands in 13th place on the Miners’ all-time scoring list (1,265 points). He is chasing Jim Barnes, the no. 1 pick in the 1964 NBA Draft who is in 12th place with 1,308 points. Harris also ranks fourth in school history in three-point field goals (154), ninth in minutes (3,368) and 13th in steals (115).
DOUBLE FIGURES OFF THE PINE
Seven different players have scored in double figures off the bench in a game for UTEP this season. Listed alphabetically, they are Keith Frazier (versus Appalachian State & North Texas), Evan Gilyard (Washington State, Florida Atlantic & FIU), Kobe Magee (New Mexico), Isiah Osborne (Louisiana College, Rice & Southern Miss), Tirus Smith (Incarnate Word), Trey Wade (Louisiana College, Lamar & Rice) and Matt Willms (North Texas & Southern Miss).
UTEP has averaged 79.6 points per game in its seven victories this season, as five players have averaged at least 10 points per game (Keith Frazier 16.0 ppg, Omega Harris 15.0 ppg, Isiah Osborne 12.0 ppg, Trey Wade 11.7 ppg, Paul Thomas 10.0 ppg). The Miners have shot 49.1 percent from the field (196-for-399) in their wins and have a positive (+1.4) rebound margin. They have also forced 95 turnovers (13.6 avg.) while coughing up the basketball only 73 times (10.4 avg.). Another stat that jumps out at you in the Miners’ seven victories is a 21-4 advantage in blocked shots, helping lead to a .379 (152-for-401) defensive field goal percentage.
Three members of this year’s team have played in 100 games for the Miners. Jake Flaggert leads the way with 111 contests, while Omega Harris and Matt Willms have both appeared in 107 games.
Matt Willms has collected 812 points, 482 rebounds and 113 blocks in his UTEP career. He is sixth in school history in blocked shots. His career field goal percentage of .572 (319-for-558) would rank third in the UTEP record book behind Cedrick Lang (.581) and Brandon Wolfram (.579).
Grad transfer Keith Frazier has led the Miners in points and rebounds four times this season. Frazier became the first UTEP player to lead the team in all five stat categories (points/rebounds/assists/blocks/steals) against North Dakota State (Dec. 22) since Lee Moore at Charlotte on Feb. 27, 2016. Frazier has compiled four 20-point games in 2017-18 and scored his season-high 25 points versus Appalachian State on Nov. 19. He has been the Miners’ top scorer six times and top rebounder seven times. Overall he is averaging a team-high 12.5 ppg and ranks second on the squad with 5.3 rpg.
UTEP has utilized 12 different starting lineups in the first 19 games of the season. Omega Harris is the only player to start every game. All 11 scholarship players have made starts in 2017-18 after nine players started last season. Pittsburgh leads the nation with 14 starting lineup combinations, followed by Bryant, Florida Gulf Coast and UT Martin with 13 each. UTEP is fifth with 12 different starting lineups.
JAKE TAKES CHARGE
Jake Flaggert led Conference USA in charges drawn in both 2015-16 (18) and 2016-17 (33). He has taken five charges in limited action this season, giving him 62 in his career.
While Jake Flaggert has traditionally been known as the Miners’ resident “charge drawer,” a freshman duo has gotten into the act in 2017-18. Evan Gilyard and Tirus Smith lead the squad with 10 and nine charges drawn, respectively. Together they have accounted for 67.9 percent (19-of-28) of the Miners’ charges drawn this season.
HITTING THE CENTURY MARK
The Miners scored 100 points in a season opener for only the third time against Louisiana College. UTEP scored 109 points versus Fort Lewis and UT-Permian Basin during the 1988-89 and 2003-04 seasons, respectively. The Miners scored 100 points for the 31st time in school history.