UTEP Basketball Disappoints in Puerto Rico Tip-Off
When the UTEP men's basketball team left El Paso for Myrtle Beach, South Carolina early last week, expectations were high. The team had just destroyed inferior Louisiana College 100-50, and hopes were the team could surprise the field at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. The tournament had been moved to South Carolina because of Hurricane Maria's damage to the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Three games later, the Miners are left with the same questions that have plagued the basketball program for the last five years.
UTEP lost all three games in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and two of the three games involved losing the lead in the final minutes. The Miners seemingly had the Boise State game won, but they blew a nine point lead in the final three minutes. The inability to inbound the basketball, key late missed free throws, defensive breakdowns, and costly time management killed them against the Broncos. Sadly, the team's late collapse spoiled a great effort for the first 17 minutes of the final half. Three days later, the Miners once again dug themselves a big hole against Appalachian State, but they played a much better second half and they had a chance in the final minute to send the game to overtime. Like Boise, a costly missed free throw in the final seconds doomed them. Sandwiched in between those two games was a 24-point blowout loss to South Carolina.
The two bright spots for the Miners after the games in Conway are Matt Willms and Keith Frazier. The 7-1 senior center played consistent throughout the tournament and finished averaging 15.7 points. Frazier, the senior graduate transfer guard, was UTEP's best offensive threat in two of the three games. He sprained his ankle when he accidentally stepped on the foot of South Carolina head coach Frank Martin on Friday. Frazier scored 25 points against Appalachian State and 22 points against Boise State. Frazier is the best outside shooter that the Miners have had in years, and I hope the coaching staff continues to find ways to get him the basketball. However, his missed free throws late in both games were costly to the Miners.
Despite all of UTEP's athleticism and improved shooting, the team continued to show the same symptoms that has plagued them over the years. Their defensive effort was sluggish in the first half against all three teams, and their zone allowed tons of open three-point looks against teams that are most dangerous from beyond the arc. The Miners were able to tighten things up against Boise State and Appalachian State, but the South Carolina game was never close. UTEP also did not get enough opportunity to play in transition and utilize their up-tempo offense. This team is not strong in the half court offense and they were lucky to have Willms and Frazier score consistently for them.
The sad reality of UTEP men's basketball is that despite preseason hype and optimism, they are always slow starters who do not find their groove until the start of conference play. A big reason for that is because these teams over the last five seasons have so much turnaround and new players. Although young newcomers like Trey Wade, Isiah Osborne, Evan Gilyard, and Tirus Smith have Miner fans dreaming for postseason success, we will be lucky if one or more of them do not transfer from the program at some point in time. It takes time to incorporate new players into your system each season and UTEP is not going to start a season 10-0 in non-conference play and sell out the Don Haskins Center with a team ranked in the Top 25. As much as head coach Tim Floyd wanted to bring the 1980s back to Miner fans, those days are long gone and only a memory for those fans who were able to experience the most successful decade of hoops in UTEP history.
When Willms, Frazier, Omega Harris, and Jake Flaggert graduate after this season, we will see the same thing again next November. Until Conference USA is able to prove to the NCAA Selection Committee that it deserves multiple teams from their league in the Big Dance, the only games that truly matter are the ones in Frisco next March. Until then, expect the same type of crowds in the Don Haskins Center that we have seen in recent years while the Miners try and win key non-conference games against rivals NMSU and UNM.