• June 24, 2022
 HP Sports In-Depth: Miners Set to Tip-Off C-USA Play at Home on Thursday

Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said of this week’s homestand. “We want to play well in front of our home fans. We’re back in the friendly confines of the Don. Our guys are eager to go win. We need to win, we need to get a ‘W’ under our belt and get back to defending the way we know we can defend…”

HP Sports In-Depth: Miners Set to Tip-Off C-USA Play at Home on Thursday

The UTEP men’s basketball team will open Conference USA play at home against North Texas on Thursday (December 28) at 7 p.m., in the earliest launch of the league schedule since 2001.

And whether they began the conference slate early or late, the Miners are eager to put their 5-7 non-conference record behind them and start fresh at 0-0.

“Conference play, really across the country in college basketball, is an exciting time and everybody is trying to make that move to get to the NCAA Tournament,” UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “Everything picks up in conference play. Everybody plays a little better, everybody plays a little harder and tougher, and every game is so meaningful. This year we start right off the bat with a really good North Texas team that had a real chance to win at Georgetown and played very well, and beat a really good San Diego team the other night. They are showing signs of being probably the best North Texas team that I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

North Texas is coached by Grant McCasland, who led Arkansas State to a 20-12 mark (11-7 Sun Belt Conference) in his only previous season as a Division I head coach in 2016-17. McCasland was also the head coach at Midland College (2004-09) and Division II Midwestern State (2009-11), and an assistant at Baylor (2011-16).

The Mean Green was 7-6 in the non-conference portion of its schedule (6-1 home, 1-5 away). North Texas has won three of its last four games, including an 86-83, overtime triumph at San Diego on Dec. 16.

Sophomore guard Roosevelt Smart, a transfer from New Mexico JC, is averaging a team-leading 17.6 ppg. He is one of five Mean Green players with double-figure scoring averages, joining sophomore guard Ryan Woolridge (13.5 ppg), senior forward Shane Temara (11.2 ppg), sophomore guard A.J. Lawson (10.8 ppg) and freshman guard Umoja Gibson (10.5 ppg). Smart is the league leader in free throw percentage (.922) and three-pointers made per game (3.2).

“They’re playing a lot harder and they’re defending a lot better than I have seen them defend in the past,” Johnson said. “Coach McCasland has really got them giving good effort. They have added a junior college player or two that are tremendous and they have a really, really good point guard who is a tremendous driver. They rebound the ball, and that has been our Achilles heel.”

North Texas’ rebound margin is +4.5 per game, third-best in Conference USA. The Miners have been outrebounded in each of the last six games, largely without 7’1” Matt Willms, who returned to practice this week.

“Hopefully we’ll get Matt back at some point,” Johnson said. “I don’t know when that will be. I don’t know if he’ll play Thursday or not. We’re just trying to get a few minutes out of him every day in practice.”

Also back practicing is freshman guard Trey Wade, who missed a handful of games while visiting his family following the passing of his grandmother.

“We are constantly working with Trey because he has very nice talent, he’s a great kid and we’re trying to get him to become a better defender,” Johnson said. “He has skills and I really think he can help us on the glass, and that’s where we need him the most.”

UTEP will host North Texas and Rice (Saturday) before embarking on its first league road trip to Southern Miss and LA Tech next week. The Miners would love to get off to a good start in C-USA play while defending their homecourt, where they have won 23 of their last 26 conference games.

If UTEP is going to make a run at the 2018 Conference USA championship, there are a few things they’ll have to do better, according to Johnson.

“We’ll have to rebound the ball better,” he said. “We’ll have to take care of the ball a little bit better, although in the last couple of games I think we have had six turnovers and eight turnovers. So those are livable numbers. But the glass in the last game was 50-30 and again, I think Matt will help us in that area. But we’ve got to work on just getting better overall at rebounding the basketball.”

Tickets for each of the Miners’ nine C-USA home games start at just $8 and are available by calling (915) 747-5234.

***IN DEPTH – UTEP vs North Texas 

This is the Miners’ 13th year in the league.  UTEP has posted a combined mark of 125-71 in C-USA games (79-19 at home, 46-52 on the road).  The Miners are 23-3 in their last 26 C-USA home games dating back to the 2014-15 season.  UTEP has posted double-digit C-USA victories in eight of the last nine years.

UTEP is 9-3 in C-USA openers with losses to Marshall on Jan. 4, 2012 (76-60), Charlotte on Jan. 9, 2014 (73-68) and UTSA on Jan. 1, 2017 (67-55).  UTEP is also 9-3 in C-USA home openers.  The Miners are opening C-USA play by facing North Texas and Rice for the third time in four years.  In 2015, UTEP christened the league slate by winning at North Texas (85-71) and Rice (66-57).  In 2016, the Miners also started 2-0 in league play by topping Rice (61-60) and North Texas (84-75) in the Haskins Center.

Six of the Miners’ 11 scholarship players have gotten a taste of Conference USA competition.  Senior guard Omega Harris has appeared in 54 league games (46 starts), senior forward Jake Flaggert 50 games (16 starts), senior center Matt Willms 46 games (33 starts), junior forward Paul Thomas 27 games (18 starts) and junior guard Trey Touchet 34 games (two starts).  Grad transfer Keith Frazier played in four games for North Texas during the 2016-17 season, and appeared in the Mean Green’s first two C-USA contests at Charlotte and Old Dominion.

The English radio broadcast is available on KOFX 92.3 FM with Jon Teicher (play-by-play) and Steve Yellen (color) calling the action.  A Spanish radio broadcast is available on ESPN Deportes 1650 AM, with Omar Ropele on the mike.

North Texas is coached by Grant McCasland, who led Arkansas State to a 20-12 mark (11-7 Sun Belt Conference) in his only previous season as a Division I head coach in 2016-17.  McCasland was also the head coach at Midland College (2004-09) and Division II Midwestern State (2009-11), and an assistant at Baylor (2011-16).

The Mean Green was 7-6 in the non-conference portion of its schedule (6-1 home, 1-5 away).  North Texas has won three of its last four games, including an 86-83, overtime triumph at San Diego on Dec. 16.  The Mean Green returned three starters and five lettermen from last year’s 8-22 squad (2-16 C-USA/14th place).  Sophomore guard Roosevelt Smart, a transfer from New Mexico JC, is averaging a team-leading 17.6 ppg.  He is one of five Mean Green players with double-figure scoring averages, joining sophomore guard Ryan Woolridge (13.5 ppg), senior forward Shane Temara (11.2 ppg), sophomore guard A.J. Lawson (10.8 ppg) and freshman guard Umoja Gibson (10.5 ppg).  As a team, North Texas is averaging 77.2 points per game with a .464 field goal percentage, .342 three-point field goal percentage and .668 free throw percentage.  The Mean Green is yielding 72.8 ppg with a .424 defensive field goal percentage and .350 defensive three-point field goal percentage.  North Texas is third in C-USA in rebound margin (+4.5 rpg).  Smart is the league leader in free throw percentage (.922) and three-pointers made per game (3.2).

UTEP holds a 9-2 edge in the series and has won nine straight over the Mean Green.  UTEP is 4-0 all-time versus UNT in El Paso, including an 87-69 triumph on Dec. 29, 1956 in the midst of a Border Conference championship season.

Paul Thomas set career-highs for points (23) and rebounds (14), and Dominic Artis scored 10 of his 19 points in overtime as UTEP rallied past North Texas, 77-71, on Feb. 16, 2017 at the Super Pit in Denton.  The Miners trailed 44-34 with 14:35 to play, but scored the next seven points to creep within three.

UTEP got down six three times, the last with 6:16 remaining (55-49), but outscored the Mean Green 16-10 over the final 5:58 to force an extra period.  Thomas’ three-point play with 1:22 left knotted it at 65 and neither team scored again in regulation.  UTEP took charge by scoring the first five points, and seven of the first eight, in overtime.  Artis’ three-pointer with 3:15 to go pushed a 67-65 lead to 70-65.  The Miners built a six-point lead (72-66) on a jumper by Artis with 1:28 to play, then held off the Mean Green down the stretch.

Artis scored the Miners’ final 10 points and 10 of 12 in overtime.  North Texas made 11-of-31 three pointers behind a career night from Derail Green, who scored 21 points and hit 7-of-11 from beyond the arc.  But they were bound to start missing eventually, and they finally did in overtime when they were 2-for-7 from the field and 0-for-4 from downtown.  Thomas made 10-of-16 shots while adding four assists and two steals.  Artis was 5-for-6 from the line, all in overtime.  Omega Harris scored nine of his 13 points in the second half, and Matt Willms contributed 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.

UTEP is 29-2 in home games versus Conference USA Texas schools since joining the league for the 2005-06 season.  The breakdown by opponent is as follows: SMU (8-0), Houston (7-1), Rice (8-1), UTSA (4-0) and North Texas (2-0).  The Miners haven’t dropped a home game to a C-USA school from Texas since Feb. 29, 2012, when Rice spoiled the Miners’ “Senior Day” with a 68-61 triumph  The homecourt win streak over C-USA Texas schools stands at 12 games.

North Dakota State outscored UTEP 19-2 over the final 7:35 en route to a 63-51 victory in the WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational championship game last Friday in the Haskins Center.  The Miners, who had their four-game win streak snapped, led 49-44 after Keith Frazier hit a jumper with 7:53 to go.  After that, North Dakota State scored 14 unanswered points before Frazier ended the scoring drought of nearly seven minutes on a jumper with 1:06 remaining.

North Dakota State put the finishing touches on the victory at the foul line.  The Bison was 21-for-29 at the stripe on the night to UTEP’s 6-for-11.  More importantly NDSU clobbered the Miners on the boards, 50-30, and scored 13 second-chance points – including 11 in the second half when it got away from UTEP.  UTEP’s Tirus Smith was limited to 17 minutes with foul trouble and finished with six points and four rebounds.  A.J. Jacobson and Tyson Ward spearheaded the Bison’s board work with 12 and 11 rebounds, respectively.  Frazier posted his second double-double of the season with 18 points and 10 rebounds to earn a spot on the All-Tournament Team.  He averaged 20.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in the two Sun Bowl Tourney games.  Smith received the tournament’s Don Haskins Award.

Thomas added 12 points and seven rebounds for the Miners.  The Miners jumped out to a 19-8 lead.  The Bison came roaring back to pull within four (25-21) at halftime.  An 8-0 run by North Dakota State in the second half turned a 36-32 deficit into a 40-36 lead.  UTEP scored six unanswered to erase a 44-43 deficit and surge into the 49-44 lead, but may have run out of gas at the end while playing its third game in four nights.

The Miners shot 33.3 percent from the field, including 30 percent in the second half, and tallied only five assists.  Smith, who had scored 32 points in the previous two games, picked up his second foul at the 15:57 mark of the first half.  He was assessed his third foul with 17:43 remaining in the second half, and his fourth with 17:08 to play.  Tournament MVP Paul Miller led North Dakota State with 19 points.

UTEP is 4-2 under Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson.  The six-game start ties the best by a UTEP rookie head coach.  Don Haskins (1961-62 season), Jason Rabedeaux (1999-00), Doc Sadler (2004-05) and Tim Floyd (2010-11) also led the Miners to four victories in their first six games on the bench.  All four got to 5-2 and Sadler was quickest out of the gate at 14-2 prior to suffering his third defeat.

UTEP has averaged 81 points per game in its five victories this season, as five players have averaged at least 10 points per game (Omega Harris 18.0 ppg, Keith Frazier 16.0 ppg, Paul Thomas 11.2 ppg, Matt Willms 10.0 ppg, Trey Wade 10.0 ppg).  The Miners have shot 49.3 percent from the field (141-for-286) in their wins and have a positive (+0.8) rebound margin.  They have also forced 82 turnovers (16.4 avg.) while coughing up the basketball only 57 times (11.4 avg.).  Another stat that jumps out at you in the Miners’ five victories is a 12-3 advantage in blocked shots, helping lead to a .375 (105-for-280) defensive field goal percentage.

The Miners lost for the first time in five games against North Dakota State (Dec. 22) as they were held to 51 points, their fewest in a game since scoring 44 at LA Tech on Jan. 5, 2017.  The Miners had averaged 76.3 ppg in their four-game win streak, after collecting 59.8 ppg in the previous six outings.  UTEP has been held to 60 points or less in five games.  The Miners are 4-1 when they tally 70 points or more this season, and 1-6 when they score less than 70.  They are also 4-1 when four or more players score in double figures, and 1-6 when three or fewer do so.

Despite coming up on the short end of the scoreboard to North Dakota State (63-51), the Miners turned in a defensive effort that was more than good enough to win with.  UTEP held the Bison to a .360 field goal percentage and .300 three-point field goal percentage.  North Dakota State’s three-point percentage and field goals (18) either set or matched season lows by a UTEP opponent.

The Miners have committed eight turnovers or less in three of their last four games.  They turned it over only six times against Washington State (Dec. 9) and Howard (Dec. 21), and eight times versus North Dakota State (Dec. 22).  Those three opponents scored a combined 13 points off turnovers, an average of 4.3 per game.

In the loss to North Dakota State, the Miners had a -20 rebound margin (50-30) for the first time since Feb. 25, 2016 at Old Dominion (51-26).  With 7-1 Matt Willms sidelined for all but one of those games, UTEP has been outboarded in each of the last six contests.  Overall the Miners have lost the battle of the boards in nine of 12 games this season.  The good news is that Willms is nearing his return after breaking his hand against Appalachian State on Nov. 19.

Tirus Smith became the sixth Miner to score in double figures off the bench in a game this season when he put 15 points and six rebounds on the board versus Incarnate Word on Dec. 19.  The other Miners who have scored in double figures in a reserve role this season are Keith Frazier (versus Appalachian State), Evan Gilyard (Washington State), Kobe Magee (New Mexico), Isiah Osborne (Louisiana College) and Trey Wade (Louisiana College & Lamar).

Three members of this year’s team have played in 100 games for the Miners.  Jake Flaggert leads the way with 104 contests, while Omega Harris and Matt Willms have both appeared in 100 games.

Omega Harris ranks 19th on UTEP’s all-time scoring list with 1,192 points.  His next target is John Bohannon, who scored 1,204 points from 2010-14 and sits in 18th place.  Also within striking distance are Omar Thomas (17th, 1,211 points) and Gary Brewster (16th, 1,213 points).  Harris is fourth in three-point field goals (143) and 13th in steals (107).  Harris has logged 3,154 minutes in a Miner uniform, putting him 15th in school annals.

Omega Harris scored a career-high 28 points versus New Mexico on Dec. 2.  The 28 points were the most by a UTEP player since Lee Moore tallied 30 against FIU in the Conference USA Tournament on March 9, 2016.  Harris matched his career-best with nine field goals made against the Lobos.  Harris picked up the 12th 20-point game of his college career versus UNM.     The Miners are 6-0 in the last six games that Harris has scored 20 points or more (dating back to the 2016-17 season), compared to 2-4 in the first six games that he did so.

Matt Willms has collected 760 points, 448 rebounds and 109 blocks in his UTEP career.  He rates seventh in school history in blocked shots.  He is chasing John Tofi, who sits in sixth place with 110 rejections.  Willms has blocked 11 shots in only five games this season, and tied his career-high with five versus Boise State in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.  His career field goal percentage of .574 (300-for-523) would rank third in the UTEP record book behind Cedrick Lang (.581) and Brandon Wolfram (.579).  Willms is nearing his return from a hand injury that has kept him out for half of the season to date.

Grad transfer Keith Frazier led the Miners in points (18) and rebounds (10) for the third time in four games, and the fourth time this season, versus North Dakota State last Friday.  What’s more, Frazier became the first UTEP player to lead the team in all five stat categories (points/rebounds/assists/blocks/steals) against NDSU 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 rebounder in seven of the first 12 contests.  Overall he leads the team with 14.6 ppg and 6.5 rpg.  He is on pace to make 83 three-pointers over 31 games, which would be the third-most in a season in school history.

UTEP has received 56.7 percent of its points (462-of-815), 60.3 percent of its rebounds (228-of-378) and 54.4 percent of its assists (68-of-125) from players in their first year wearing the Orange and Blue uniform.  A newcomer has led the Miners in scoring in nine of 12 games, and a freshman has been UTEP’s top scorer in three contests.

Including grad transfer Keith Frazier, UTEP has received 49.6 percent of its points (404-of-815), 42.9 percent of its rebounds (162-of-378) and 45.6 percent of its assists (57-of-125) from players who are in their final year in the Orange and Blue.  The Miners’ top three scorers are Frazier (14.6 ppg), senior Matt Willms (13.4 ppg) and senior Omega Harris (12.6 ppg).  If that holds up, UTEP’s top three scorers would be seniors for the first time since 2010-11 when the top five scorers (Randy Culpepper, Christian Polk, Jeremy Williams, Julyan Stone, Claude Britten) were in their final year of eligibility.

UTEP has utilized nine different starting lineups in the first 12 games of the season.  Omega Harris and Paul Thomas are the only players to start every game.  All 11 scholarship players have made starts in 2017-18 after nine players started last season.  UT Martin leads the nation with 10 different starting lineup combinations this season (through games of Dec. 25), while UTEP, Bryant and Florida Gulf Coast have all employed nine different starting lineups to tie for second.

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 seven charges drawn each.  Together they have accounted for 73.7 percent (14-of-19) of the Miners’ charges drawn this season.

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.

By outscoring Louisiana College 32-0 to start the game in the season opener, UTEP came within two points of tying an NCAA record.  On Nov. 29, 1998, Seton Hall led Kean 34-0 to set the standard.

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.

THE 2017-18 MINERS
UTEP returns four starters and five letterwinners from last year’s squad that started 2-13 before winning 13 of its final 17 games and tying for third place in Conference USA (12-6 mark).  UTEP welcomes back five of its top six scorers from the 2016-17 season headlined by senior guard Omega Harris (17.0 ppg last season) and senior center Matt Willms (11.4 ppg).  The only starter lost is Dominic Artis, who last year became the first player in school history to lead the team in rebounds (207), assists (187) and steals (60).  Artis, a second team All-Conference USA player, collected 15.0 ppg.  The Miners have six scholarship newcomers including two players (Isiah Osborne and Trey Wade) who sat out last season.  Also new to the fold are freshmen Evan Gilyard, Kobe Magee and Tirus Smith and graduate transfer Keith Frazier.

UTEP got a head start on the 2017-18 campaign by playing three games in Costa Rica in August.  The Miners also had 10 days of practices prior to departing for San Jose on Aug. 15.  The Miners toured San Jose, visited a local orphanage, sampled the local culture and food, and enjoyed a Zip Line experience in Los Suenos before returning to El Paso on Aug. 21.  On the court, the Miners played three teams from Canada, with 12 of the 13 players on the active roster seeing action (Evan Gilyard was sidelined with a shoulder injury).  Sophomore guard Isiah Osborne led the team in minutes (94, 31.3 avg.), while seven Miners were on the floor for 50 minutes or more.  Osborne and freshman guard Trey Wade paced the squad with 11.3 points per game, while senior center Matt Willms averaged 9.0 ppg, senior guard Omega Harris 8.3 ppg and junior forward Paul Thomas 8.3 ppg.  Osborne was the leading rebounder with 6.0 per game, while Wade posted a double-double in UTEP’s third game versus the University of British Columbia with 16 points and 11 boards.

Four Miners have early earned their degrees.  Jake Flaggert received his Marketing degree in May of 2017 and is pursuing his Master’s in Business Management.  Keith Frazier graduated from North Texas with a degree in Integrative Studies and is working on his Master’s in Leadership Studies.  Matt Willms received his Communication degree in May of 2016 and is pursuing his Master’s in Organizational & Corporate Communication.   Trey Touchet received his degree in Kinesiology on Dec. 16 and is beginning work on his Master’s in Leadership Studies.

The Miners are picked to finish fifth in Conference USA this season, based on a preseason vote by league head coaches.  Middle Tennessee is projected to win the league (eight first-place votes), followed by UAB (four first-place votes), LA Tech (two first-place votes), Old Dominion, UTEP, WKU, Marshall, Charlotte, UTSA, Southern Miss, North Texas, Florida Atlantic, Rice and FIU.

Staff Report

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