By UTEP Zay 

In under a month, UTEP men’s basketball will open its season against Texas in the newly-built Moody Center. Coming off the first 20-win season for the program since the 2014-15 season, 2nd-year head coach Joe Golding has certainly created some buzz around the city. With the Miners losing all but three players from last year's roster, this team is loaded with newcomers, and fans got to see their first glimpse of the new squad last week when UTEP held an open practice at Eastwood High School.

I got to see the new squad up and close, and all I can say is this. This is a gritty, scrappy, hard-working group. Here are five takeaways following the open practice.

All three returnees should play a crucial role this season

UTEP had its mass exodus this offseason that saw over 12 players either transfer, graduate, or play professionally. That left only three returning players, which include Jamari Sibley, Kevin Kalu, and Ze’Rik Onyema.

Sibley, who played the 4 last year, will now transition to more of a perimeter role. He was happy when I asked him about the change. He said that position fits him better. From what I’ve seen, Sibley has found some more confidence and he was taking shots that last year would’ve passed up on. We’ll have to see what happens defensively with Sibley, just because we haven’t seen him have to consistently guard players on the perimeter. As the only returning starter from the team last year, Sibley will be called upon to be a leader for this team. For the other two returnees, they’ll also play a bigger role this year.

Kevin Kalu put in a ton of work this offseason, and he will compete with fellow returnee Ze’Rik Onyema for playing time at the 5. Both guys look like they put in work this offseason. Onyema looks much bigger and ripped compared to last year. He was an absolute spark off the bench last year. He would make big plays that could give UTEP some momentum, such as a big block or a wild dunk. If Onyema can put all of that together with a chance to start, we could see a breakout season for the 6-8 sophomore. As for Kalu, he looks much better than last year. He will need to work on his post moves and his defense in the paint, but he will play a crucial role this season. Some people say that Kalu put in the most work this offseason, so the battle for the starting 5 spot will be something to continue to watch as the season approaches. All three returnees, who are all sophomores, are going to be called upon to lead this team.

The guard position is deep and they defend

UTEP brought in 13 new players, nine of them being guards. Joe Golding obviously made the guard position a focus when he went recruiting. The Miners brought in three guards with division 1 experience and another two guards from the JUCO ranks. All five of those players will most likely play a role this year and don’t be surprised to see all types of lineup changes as the season progresses.

While all five guards have vastly different play styles, they all have something in common. They all play tenacious defense. Shamar Givance, a senior transfer from Evansville, only stands at 5’10, but his quick hands and feet make him a pesky defender. Mario McKinney is an athletic guard that can shut down a starting point guard at times. Both Tae Hardy and Malik Zachary looked like they can give the shooting guard on the opposing team a rough time. We didn’t get to see Carlos Lemus last week, as the shooting guard from Chipola JC was out with a back injury. I talked to Lemus after the practice, and he said it was something minor and that he should be back very soon.

From the looks of it, this group of guards are hardworking, especially on the defensive side of things and they don’t look afraid of anything. The energy on defense was something that stood out to me, and it looks like everybody on the team has embraced the Joe Golding “street fight” mentality, especially on defense.

The battle for the 4 is wide open

Apart from the point guard and small forward positions, it seems like all spots are wide open. However, the forward spot is one of the more interesting ones, as it looks like there isn’t a clear leader for the starting spot.

Stephen F. Austin transfer Calvin Solomon and JUCO transfer Jon Dos Anjos are the two that are looking to be the starting 4 for the Miners opening night game against Texas. Solomon, who was a 2-year starter for SFA, averaged 9 PPG, 6 RPG, and 2 APG for the Lumberjacks last year. Solomon also averaged 1 block and 1.7 steals per game. Solomon is someone who can defend 1-5, and he is also a very capable rebounder. His defense is among the best on the team, and don’t count out his passing ability. He doesn’t have much of a shot, which is his biggest weakness. That could be one of the deciding factors for Joe Golding and his coaching staff. Dos Anjos, a 6-foot-8 JUCO transfer from Florida Southwestern, is a much different type of player. Dos Anjos is someone who can stretch the floor offensively and hit the three. He was 39.6% from deep last year when he averaged 12 PPG and 5 RPG. He is much more of an offensive threat than Solomon. The thing that may set him back is his rebounding and defensive skills.

The battle was a fun one to watch last week. We got to see them go at it. Neither one got a lot of touches offensively, and there wasn’t much setting them apart. This will be a closely contested race and I really can’t tell you who I thought performed better. I think the starting spot will come down to the other players that are starting. If Golding wants to go to more of an offensive approach and start more shooters, then Dos Anjos will be the pick, but if he wants to be more defensive, then Solomon will be the pick. At the end of the day, each player will probably earn the same number of minutes, but we’ll have to wait until gameday to find out who is the starting 4.

The offense may be a problem early

Last year, UTEP had its fair share of offensive struggles. They couldn’t shoot or couldn’t find an identity early into the 2021-22 season. All those struggles came to fruition after a rough 52-40 loss to UC Riverside in non-conference. UTEP got their offense on track and eventually won 20 games, but you see the point. Joe Golding said these struggles were due to UTEP’s focus on defense throughout the offseason. We didn’t see many drills that focused on offense, and the jury is still out on who is going to be able to shoot the 3-ball consistently. That may be the only negative takeaway from this practice. I do think if UTEP struggles early in the season offensively, they’ll eventually find their way, but I would say it wouldn’t surprise me if UTEP struggles early on.

This team fits the “Street Fight” mentality

I am not going to lie; I was a bit concerned with the recruiting UTEP did this off-season. I just didn’t see where the scoring would come from, who would lead this team, or who would make the tough and clutch shots. However, after watching this team practice, those worries may have been put to rest. This team fits Joe Golding. They’re going to win those hard-fought, ugly games. They bring a different energy than last year's team did. These guys were going all out, whether it was fighting for the rebound, throwing themselves at a loose ball, or running to pick up a teammate, they did everything with such effort. El Paso should embrace this team because it feels like that team is embracing this city. I'm really starting to like this team, and for good reason.

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