UTEP Basketball Finds Success in Rapidly Developing Key Freshmen
The UTEP men's basketball team has made two months look like two years in developing its four freshmen that play active roles on the team.
If Sunday’s 68-56 win over UC Riverside wasn’t a clear indication of that, how about freshman Efe Odigie’s fourth double-double (24 points, 11 rebounds) performance this season? Or, how about the fact that the Miners were without leading scorer in Evan Gilyard, yet the four freshmen (Kaosi Ezeagu, Nigel Hawkins, Jordan Lathon and Odigie) accounted for 49 (72 percent) of UTEP’s 68 final points?
And when Odigie and Hawkins walked into the press room following the game, they were asked about the process of maturing on the court.
“I feel like we grow up every game, every practice, every day,” Odigie said
“Every day,” Hawkins butted in.
“It’s not one time that we don’t grow up, it’s not one time that coach doesn’t grow us up. He’s always pushing us to be older than we are,” Odigie continued.
“Always pushing us,” Hawkins interjected.
“We’re in December right now and we’re playing more minutes than average freshmen at other schools, so we’re ‘sophomores,’” Odigie explained. “He’s [Terry] building on the surface and it’s ongoing every day.”
Being a “sophomore” player on a program is big for these 18, 19-year-old freshmen, but it’s not one that has become too nerve-wracking for these young bucks. The only way to test their natural abilities and see where they stand is to throw them into the fire during games and see how they react to adversity.
“Those young players, they’re in the gym all the time,” Terry said. “They do a good job in their academics, but they put in their time at the gym and you can see the results in getting better. They’re going to continue to get better and better.”
The month-to-month approach by Terry has taken full effect. November was the month to get everyone geared up and ready to execute what they want to put out in December which, for Terry, is a month that the team should already have an identity.
This team has transformed from a ball of potential to a full-force contender. The narrative has changed from "how good will they be next year with five Division I players eligible?" to "how good can this young team finish this season?" UTEP prides themselves on their defense, while allowing opportunities to present themselves on offense.
“Coach always tells us, ‘we gotta go, we gotta go, we’re in December. You all are playing more minutes than the average freshman. Y’all are sophomores now.’ He’s always pushing us and that’s what’s making us better.”
If you took a step back and looked at this team from afar, you would probably see a bunch that are young and might not know just how talented they are. They look all right on paper, but not spectacular. It’s in person where you see them doing all the little stuff that gives you hope for this young team, such as rebounding, diving for loose balls and never letting up on their intensity for 40 minutes.
And also, it's about the team’s steady improvement. They once were a team that got in foul trouble early and turned the ball over too frequently. UTEP had just 13 fouls as a team on Sunday and have dropped their turnover margin from -6 to now -2.4 on the season.
“Early in the year, our guards were letting letting those guards play uphill and our bigs were helping out--and they were young, they were making really bad fouls--so we tried to clean it up and they’ve definitely got better in that area,” Terry said. “Lamont [Smith] has done a great job on those guys in pick and roll defense. These guys are smart and that has to do with experience on the floor.”
The minutes they’ve logged on the court adds to that experience. Odigie, Hawkins and Lathon are clocking in over 25.9 minutes per game, while Ezeagu is averaging 12.9 minutes.
Specifically Odigie and Lathon have been the two that have been standouts for the Miners.
Lathon is now averaging 10.1 points per game, but is averaging 14.5 points through his last four games. He also is the team leader in steals (11) and tied best for assists (27).
Odigie, on the other hand, is on pace to shatter UTEP freshman big man records. He’s currently averaging 15.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. No freshman forward averaged close to a double-double since the likes of Anthony Burns in 1977-78 averaged 9.9 points and 9.4 rebounds. He’s currently second in C-USA for rebounding and 13th for scoring.
With better play comes higher expectations for Odigie’s future, however.
“He’s putting more time in,” Terry said. “I had a chance to visit with him early last week and really challenge him to be one of the best big men in our league. He’s a guy that can score with his back to the basket so I give him a lot of kudos. Efe has lost 30 pounds since he was with us and a big part of his game and something that will be important for him is his conditioning. He’s worked really hard on that, he’s getting better, he’s buying into putting more time in the gym and you see the results [against UC Riverside]--24 [points] and 11 [rebounds] is pretty good for a young player.”
Odigie put up a double-double without Gilyard, the leading scorer, which was a prime example of how this team uses the “next man up” mentality.
“Basketball’s a team sport and that’s the beauty of it,” Terry said. “When you have someone down, next man up. Next guy gets an opportunity to play, do his job and hopefully do it at a high level.”
The ceiling continues to rise for these four freshmen.
Odigie could be a first-team All-C-USA candidate year after year. He could be one of the baddest big men that plays hard-nosed and tough, like a modern-day Antonio Davis or a talent level like a Vince Hunter.
Lathon can solidify himself as a guaranteed starter at UTEP this season. His sharp defense and frame (6-foot-4, 190-pounds) makes him a desirable candidate for a eventual professional basketball prospect as a two-way guard.
We haven’t seen the best from Hawkins yet, and that’s fine. Hawkins’ raw talent makes him still fun to watch game-by-game and his shots will eventually fall. He scored nine points on Sunday, putting his season average at 8.9 points per game. Biggest thing for Hawkins is his turnovers. He holds a team-high 30 turnovers with the Miners but recently has made up for it defensively. Expect Hawkins to grow up more during C-USA play, where he enters with more games played under his belt.
For Ezeagu, it’s about continuing as one of the team’s best defenders. When he’s on the floor, the paint is almost untouchable. No team has continuously ran pick-and-rolls or pushed the paint with the 6-foot-11 Ezeagu inside. He holds a team-high six blocks so far. Ezeagu has to translate his game to be more effective on offense than he’s been. At just 4.0 points per game, Ezeagu needs to find his niche offensively in the paint and bully big men on offense the same way he does defensively.
So for now, we simply watch and enjoy these four freshman. Take a step back and smell the roses. What these four are doing is something this program has rarely ever saw.
“I feel like that’s more turmoil to the fire, especially for next year when we have everybody, it’s going to be better because we have freshman that are playing this year, getting the experience and we have people that already have experience and it’s going to be crazy,” Odigie said. “Just watch, it’s going to be crazy.”