The UTEP men’s basketball team stands 2-7 midway through its Conference USA schedule. The good news is that there is precedent for a turnaround.
In each of the last three seasons since going to an 18-game league slate, UTEP has posted a 7-2 mark over its final nine conference games. During that stretch the Miners have gone 14-13 in the first half, and 21-6 in the second half.
So it’s entirely possible that the Miners can change their fortunes over the next month. They’ll have five of their final nine C-USA games at home, starting this weekend when they’ll entertain two of the top teams in the league – WKU on Thursday at 8, and Marshall on Saturday at 7.
WKU is 7-1 in C-USA, a half-game behind front-running Middle Tennessee and tied with Old Dominion for second place. The Hilltoppers have a returning second team All-Conference player (Justin Johnson) and a quartet of newcomers – grad transfers Dwight Coleby (Kansas) and Darius Thompson (Virginia), junior Lamonte Bearden (Buffalo transfer) and freshman Taveion Hollingsworth – who combine to average 51.8 points per game. WKU ranks 19th nationally in field goal percentage (.495).
The Hilltoppers are second in C-USA in field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage (.383), and third in scoring margin (+8.8 ppg) and field goal percentage defense (.420).
“They’re going to be very similar to what we saw with Middle Tennessee in the fact that they’re big and they’re very physical,” UTEP Interim Coach Phil Johnson said. “In fact, they’re probably the most talented team in our league, and that includes Middle Tennessee. They play a lot different than Middle Tennessee but those two big guys [Johnson and Coleby] are outstanding. We’ve got to get tougher and get physical real fast.”
The Miners have been competitive in eight of their nine league games, but the absence of Willms proved to be too much to overcome at Middle Tennessee on Saturday. UTEP was outscored 34-16 in the paint and outrebounded 42-26. The Blue Raiders shot 58.1 percent in the second half and scored 51 points, continuing a disturbing trend in C-USA play. In the first half, UTEP opponents have averaged 32 points. In the second half, they have averaged 43.4 points while shooting 52.9 percent (138-for-261) from the field.
“We’ve got to clamp down. We’ve got to be better defensively on the road,” Johnson said. “We’re still learning how to play on the road. A lot of it is toughness, a lot of it is commitment to defending every possession. We have shown signs here and there for 14 minutes to 20 minutes, but not 40.”
In five league games (Southern Miss, LA Tech, FIU, UAB, Middle Tennessee), opponents shot 58 percent or better in the second half. Four of those games were away from El Paso.
“We’re not a real vocal team and as I’ve said many times, we have been pretty decent defensively in the first half up until the Middle Tennessee game,” Johnson said. “Second half, not as good. Some of that is talking, some of that is having young guys and not being able to talk. Every team in the country has that issue. Some address it and some get better at it and some don’t. We’ll continue to fight and get better.”
The Miners are hoping to have Willms back this weekend. Tirus Smith is continuing his rehab from a knee injury but likely won’t return until next week, at the earliest.
UTEP has gotten solid play from freshmen Trey Wade (36 points in the last two games) and Evan Gilyard (70 points in the last five games) of late. Another freshman, Kobe Magee, leads C-USA in three-point field goal percentage (.630) for conference games only.
Sophomore Isiah Osborne is averaging a team-high 13.6 ppg in league action, but struggled on the road trip (2-for-20 from the field) while he was under the weather. The Miners will need all hands on deck for the last nine conference games, and a three-game homestand is a good place to start.
“[We need to] practice better, and hopefully get healthy too,” Johnson said. “We need Matt Willms back. We just got punished inside at Middle Tennessee, really at UAB as well. Our guys fought pretty hard. Jake Flaggert was guarding a 6-11 kid at Middle Tennessee. We had Trey Touchet guarding a 6-8, 250 [player]. Those are all issues. But they’re not excuses, it’s just a fact. We need Matt to get healthy and we need to defend better. We’re taking too many threes. We’re going to clean that up.”
Thursday marks the Miners’ annual “Noche Latina” game as UTEP will celebrate the Hispanic culture. Tickets, starting at just $8, are available by calling 747-5234.