When UTEP takes the floor against Rice today in the quarterfinal round of the Conference USA men’s basketball tournament, it will mark the culmination of a momentous feat.
That the Miners enter competition at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, after a first-round bye is nothing short of remarkable. UTEP secured the No. 4-seed in the tournament after a disastrous start to the 2016-17 season by reeling off 12 wins in its last 15 games. Should the Miners (14-16, 12-6 in C-USA) continue their hot streak to become C-USA tournament champions — and NCAA tournament participants — it will mark something historic.
No team that has lost 12 consecutive regular season games has made the Big Dance. While the task to become the first won’t be simple, there is reason to believe the Miners — who dropped a dozen consecutive contests from Nov. 20 to Jan. 7 — can waltz their way to the field of 68.
The berth would top Coppin State’s run to the 2008 tournament. The Eagles lost 11 straight regular season games before winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament to earn a spot in a No. 16-seed play-in game against Mount St. Mary’s. The 1998-99 Florida A&M team is the only other squad to make the tournament despite having a double-digit losing streak (10).
“It’s an exciting time of the year, not only for us but the other 11 teams that are going to be in the tournament,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said in statement. “Everybody is hopeful. In our case, we have given ourselves a path that is a little easier, only having to play three games to get to the NCAA tournament versus four.”
That path begins with Rice, which advanced to the second round after beating Southern Miss, 86-75, on Wednesday. The Miners have beaten the Owls 17 times in their last 21 meetings. UTEP most recently beat Rice, 79-71, on Feb. 18 in Houston. The Miners have advanced in seven consecutive C-USA tournaments and eight of the last nine.
Their lone opening-round ouster came as a No. 4-seed against Houston in 2009.
If the Miners advance to the semifinals, they will likely face No. 25 Middle Tennessee. The No. 1-seed Blue Raiders won the C-USA regular-season title with 17-1 conference record (27-4 overall). Their lone blemish? That came in El Paso on Feb. 4 in a 57-54 upset. If UTEP can repeat that success, it would have one more team to go through before giving head coach Tim Floyd his first berth with the Miners in the NCAA tournament.
Floyd has had high-profile detractors during his seventh season in El Paso. Most notable among them were the group of fans holding “Fire Floyd” signs in the Don Haskins Center who were confronted by former UTEP head football coach Mike Price. That came in December, in the midst of the Miners’ losing streak.
The signs vanished as the season progressed, replaced by an unprecedented surge to the league’s upper echelon.
Floyd has ridden the play of his stellar guards, Dominic Artis and Omega Harris, during the turnaround. Both players were named to the All-Conference USA team earlier this week and have been catalysts in
the team’s resurgence. While the Miners have battled through injuries, fielded various lineup rotations and struggled with turnovers, the biggest factor in their climb has simply been improved offensive efficiency. During the losing streak, UTEP was shooting 42-percent from the floor and 29-percent from three-point range.
Since then, the Miners have improved to 49-percent and 35-percent, respectively. Couple that with a nearly plus-4 turnover margin per game during the same period and a newfound doggedness on the defensive end of the floor and you have a team that is poised to do what was once unthinkable.
For Floyd, who gruffly accepted responsibility for the team’s poor play after its Dec. 3 loss to Northwestern State, three more wins could provide a catharsis. His arrival in El Paso in 2010 was largely celebrated by fans who appreciated the link to the school’s illustrious past and thought Floyd’s pedigree would bring immediate success to a team fresh off an NCAA tournament appearance. But his previous six seasons have yielded no conference championships and no wins in the second-tier postseason tournaments his teams have qualified for.
A return to the dance would do well to silence the most ardent critics of the highest paid coach in program history. He deserves credit for keeping his team focused through an arduous season. An NCAA tournament berth makes Floyd, whose contract is up in 2018, deserving of even more.
The first step on the road to those possibilities begins today.
• What: No. 4-seed UTEP Miners (14-16, 12-6 in Conference USA) vs. No. 5-seed Rice Owls (21-10, 11-7) in quarterfinal round of Conference USA men’s basketball tournament.
• When, where: 1 p.m. MST today, Legacy Arena, Birmingham, Alabama.
• On TV: American Sports Network, Channel 14-KFOX in El Paso.
• Notes: Winner will face the winner of No. 1-seed Middle Tennessee and No. 9-seed UTSA 10:30 a.m. Friday. If UTEP wins its next three games to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament, it would be the first time a team with a 12-game regular season losing streak makes the dance.
Author: Pablo Villa – Special to the Herald-Post