After tipping off the 2016-17 season with a couple of exhibitions versus Division II schools and a lopsided win over a Division III opponent, the UTEP Miners will be tested mightily when they take part in the Gildan Charleston Classic.
UTEP will play three games in the four-day event – Thursday, Friday and Sunday – at 5,100-seat TD Arena in Charleston. Up first is a matchup with Wake Forest out of the Atlantic Coast Conference on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. (Mountain time).
The game will be televised on ESPN3 with Roy Philpott and Mark Plansky calling the action.
UTEP is participating in an ESPN in-season tournament for the fourth time in six years. The Miners played in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu (2011), Old Spice Classic in Orlando (2012) and Wooden Legacy in Anaheim (2014) previously. This is the sixth time in seven years that UTEP has taken part in a November tournament, all under coach Tim Floyd, including the Legends Classic in Atlantic City (2010), the Old Spice Classic (2012), the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas (2013), Wooden Legacy (2014) and the Corpus Christi Coastal Classic (2015).
“We’ve tried to do this every year that we’ve been here,” Floyd said. “I think it’s a great challenge for us. The ACC is the ACC and they’re getting the best of the best and they’ve got terrific, terrific talent. I think this a much-improved Wake Forest team. I talked to the coach at East Carolina yesterday and he thought they would finish fifth or sixth in the league. So he’s got them playing very well.”
The Demon Deacons won only 11 games last season but coach Danny Manning has upgraded the team’s talent by bringing in six newcomers, including transfers Austin Arians (Milwaukee) and Keyshawn Woods (Charlotte). Graduate transfer forward Arians (8.5 ppg) has started the first two games. Sophomore guard Woods has come off the bench for the first two contests but is second on the team in scoring (18.0 ppg).
And then there’s sophomore forward John Collins, who may be the most-improved player in the country. A year after averaging 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds, the 6-10 forward produced stat lines of 18 points/12 rebounds and 19 points/nine rebounds in the Demon Deacons’ first two games versus Radford and Bucknell.
Wake Forest is shooting 40.9 percent (18-for-44) from three-point range this season, up from 31.6 percent in 2015-16, and made 13 triples on Sunday against Bucknell.
“It’s a much-improved shooting team from a year ago,” Floyd said.
Besides UTEP and Wake Forest, this year’s Gildan Charleston Classic features defending national champion Villanova, Boise State, College of Charleston, Mississippi State, UCF and Western Michigan. UTEP will face either Villanova or Western Michigan, which won 13 games a year ago, on Friday.
“The challenges beyond Wake, who knows who you’ll play and they’re all good,” Floyd said. “Our kids are excited. We’re looking forward to getting out there and trying to see if we can gauge our improvement and where we need to go after this week.”
The tournament setting will benefit teams as they venture into postseason play four months down the road.
“They do because you have to prepare back-to-back-to-back and then you get into conference tournament play, certainly you have to go through that in order to try to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Floyd said. “Just from that standpoint, it gives us a reference point that we can look back on and frame how we’re going to change things, or maybe what we’re going to try to duplicate.”
If the Miners are going to have a shot against Wake Forest, they know they’ll have to protect the basketball, something they didn’t do in Saturday’sseason-opening rout of Louisiana College. UTEP turned over the ball 22 times in that game, just one of several areas they can still work on.
“There is something everywhere,” Floyd said. “It may be rebounding, it may be not being able to guard the dribble, it may be not getting back on defense. We can always find something. That’s what coaches do. We showed the turnovers to our players, we took the clips out. Some things we can’t do for them. We try to put them in positions where they can make plays that they can make. We just threw it all over the gym. But I saw something yesterday where turnovers are up nationally right now. Who knows why.”
UTEP’s backcourt of Dominic Artis and Omega Harris stole the show in the Louisiana College game. Artis put up eight points, nine rebounds, 13 assists and four steals. Harris scored 24 points. They could be the heroes for the Miners on Thursday, or someone else could emerge.
“Who knows what Wake Forest will try to take away from us,” Floyd said. “They watch film and they look at things. We’ll try to play good team basketball and when you play good team basketball, it depends on coverages, who’s going to have an opportunity to play well.”