Grading the 2021-22 UTEP Basketball Season: Miners Achieve Milestones in Year One Under Golding
The UTEP men's basketball team bowed out in the quarterfinal round of the Conference USA Tournament on Thursday night in a back-and-forth grind of a basketball game.
While postseason play is being debated by the program—if they get invited by a tournament not named the NCAA Tournament—the Miners (19-13) close in year one under Joe Golding ended with optimism and momentum around the program.
Let's look back at this season, give out some (possible) final season grades and preview what's ahead for the Miners.
How the season ended: A-
Once the Miners beat the top team of C-USA in North Texas (70-68) to close out the regular season, the season already ended on a high note in my eyes. Yet, the squad continued to push forward and managed to win its first game in the C-USA Tournament against Old Dominion (74-64), the first time the program has won a league tournament game since 2017.
In Thursday's contest, the Miners started a bit slow against the top-seeded team of the C-USA East Division. The fourth-seeded Miners struggled to score in the first half, though their defense was stout against an MTSU squad that was missing second-team All C-USA guard Josh Jefferson.
The Blue Raiders built their lead to as much as 12 points in the second half after leading by four points (25-21) at the half. The Miners, who looked down for the count, rallied back on an 18-2 run to take the lead under five minutes to go. However, MTSU was able to get to the charity stripe and tied the game at the end of regulation, 52-52.
In overtime, the Blue Raiders simply outlasted the Miners. As soon as MTSU took a two-possession lead, they never looked back. With the 66-59 win, MTSU advances to the semifinal round to face C-USA West power UAB.
“Those guys played their heart out for UTEP,” first-year head coach Joe Golding said. “They battled, they competed and they gave it everything they had. Our defense was pretty consistent all night. Give Middle Tennessee credit too. They fought and battled too. It was a great college basketball game.
MTSU got a combined 37 points from Eli Lawrence (19 points, seven rebounds) and Deandre Dishman (18 points, seven rebounds). They scored 17 points off UTEP's 15 turnovers and flexed their stifling defense all night.
UTEP shot an abysmal 23% from 3-point range (3-of-13), yet managed to hang in the game. Souley Boum, who was held scoreless through the eight-minute mark of the second half, found other ways to impact the game, finishing with a scrappy 12 points, nine rebounds and seven steals. Jamal Bieniemy (13 points) and Keonte Kennedy (11) were the only other Miners to score in double figures.
“These guys played cared. They played for UTEP and they played for El Paso,” Golding said. “I think it showed all year, and it definitely showed tonight.”
Non-conference slate: C+
Through the non-conference portion of the season, this Miner team was trying to feel each other out and get comfortable with each other. There were highs and lows of course.
The two signature wins by the squad in the non-conference slate included a 73-64 road win at Pacific in which Boum scored 29 points to lead the Miners, followed by Bieniemy's 18 and Alfred Hollins’ 12. They went out to The Pit and beat New Mexico, 77-69, in what was the first spark to Keonte Kennedy's tear in the month of December, as he finished with 22 points against the Lobos.
The Miners did have some games in non-conference play where they couldn't get things done offensively, which led to defensive lapses and resulted in losses. They had a 12-point home loss to UC Riverside, 52-40. They were swept by NM State and didn't stand a chance against Big 12 power Kansas, 78-52. To finish out the non-conference schedule, the Miners were defeated over the final minutes against Bradley (73-66) in the Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational.
Conference USA season: B+
As the season went along, the Miners went from a mediocre squad to a legitimate threat in a competitive league.
They tipped off conference play on a 1-3 sluggish start, as the team adjusted to not having Kennedy in the lineup due to a foot fracture he suffered in the final minutes of the Bradley loss. Following the loss to Charlotte (66-53), the locker room felt a shift in the season.
Coaches and players reflected back on the game, as the program embraced a "street fight mentality" mantra following their loss to the 49ers. UTEP went on to reel off six straight wins, including an overtime win at Old Dominion (78-70) to jumpstart the streak. The win streak was highlighted by a buzzer-beater tip-in by Hollins against Florida Atlantic in a key home league win, 70-68.
The worst loss in league play came in what UTEP fans thought would be an easy win on Super Bowl Sunday against Marshall. Instead, the Thundering Herd came into the Haskins Center and pummeled the Miners, 88-79.
But the close to the season was more than admirable for UTEP.
They swept LA Tech (63-60) and Southern Miss (84-70) on the road for the first time in program history. They nearly edged out UAB at home in a narrow 69-66 loss. UTEP closed on a high note as they topped North Texas on Senior Day (70-68) to finish the year and stump the 15-game win streak UNT had at the time.
Player Development: A
UTEP players top to bottom generally improved throughout the course of the 2021-22 season.
Take Ze'Rik Onyema for example. The freshman was buried in the depth chart last year and not many expected the 6-foot-8 forward to carve a role for himself on this team. Yet, through progression in practice and thanks to some solid play off the bench, Onyema earned minutes as the conference slate moved on. It all led up to Onyema's first career start against ODU in the first round of the C-USA Tournament on Wednesday.
He's not the only example.
Boum went from being a volume shooter last year to a well-rounded guard that emphasized rebounding and steals on the defensive side. The second-team Alll C-USA honoree led the conference in scoring at 19.7 points per game.
Bieniemy, a third-team All-Conference recipient, went from being a pass-first point guard to an all-around scorer, averaging 14.7 points per game (career-best). Kennedy also flourished this year in his best season of his college career, averaging nearly 14 points per game in 17 games played.
Tydus Verhoeven begged for more of an offensive role and earned it midway into C-USA play. He was the team's best defender in the paint and he was routinely asked to guard the opponent's best big man. The progress that guys like Jamari Sibley, Alfred Hollins and Jorell Saterfield made this year was admirable.
The only two players that took a bit of a step back as the season closed out were Christian Agnew, who had a tough time breaking into the rotation with a solid group of guards, and Kevin Kalu, who didn't see action to finish the year after playing in 24 games earlier this year.
The Miners were a bit offensively challenged this season, but it was far from a disaster. They went from virtually not having reliable scoring in the first part of the year, to being a gritty scoring bunch as the year winded down. They relied heavily on guards Boum, Kennedy and Bieniemy to lead the scoring charge. When they would get production from forwards like Verhoeven, Sibley or Hollins, that usually meant good things were happening.
UTEP ranked in the top five of C-USA for 3-point shooting percentage (35%), free throw percentage (76.3%) and fewest turnover percentage (17%). They finished the bottom of the league in categories like 2-point shooting percentage (46.9%) and offensive rebounding (22.5%).
If this is the kind of defense that we will see year after year under Golding, sign me up. The defensive intensity that he asks from his players created a strong identity for this squad.
The Miners ranked sixth in the league for defensive efficiency, but that was not an indicator of how strong they were on defense. They play tough man-to-man defense and emphasize strict on-ball defense.
They were a top-5 team in C-USA for turnover percentage (20.6%), steals (10.3%) and non-steal turnovers (10.3%). The non-steal turnovers is big for me because those were the grimy, gritty possessions on defense for the MIners in which they caused something like a shot clock violation or took a charge.
The area that the Miners need to improve on defensively is not allowing second-chance points and offensive rebounds. UTEP ranked last in the league in offensive rebound percentage defense (31.1%).
Key areas for improvement: rebounding, shooting
As mentioned above, the Miners will need to improve on their rebounding skills for years to come. They finished the year with a -4.5 rebounding margin. The solution, in my eyes, is to recruit new bigs that have a knack for the glass.
Offensively, they could use some more scoring depth on next year's roster. The 43% field goal percentage and going 35% from 3-point range is decent, but the team will need to take the next step offensively in 2022-23 if they want to be a contender.
Maybe San Diego State transfer Che Evans Jr. and JUCO transfer Jonathan Dos Anjos can provide a scoring relief off the bench next
Final grade on 2021-22: A-
The Miners overachieved by most measures this season under the first year of the Golding era. The overarching feeling is that Golding is the right coach to set this team up for success in the years to come. The Miners achieved a good set of milestones this year and they still have a lot of work to do.
Next year, it will be 13 years since the Miners have punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. This year marks 30 years since UTEP last won a game in the NCAA Tournament (1992 vs. Kansas). Plus, Golding has made it his goal to grow the fan base in years to come. This year, UTEP finished second in C-USA for attendance, averaging 4,771 fans at the Haskins Center.
What's next for the Miners?
Though the possibility of postseason play still seems uncertain, there could be options for the Miners if they want to play. There are two tournaments that jump out to me—The Basketball Classic (formally known as the CIT) and the CBI.
For The Basketball Classic, the tournament is three rounds, single-elimination, with games held on campuses of participating schools. All ticket sales go to the tournament, but there is no entrance fee.
The CBI chooses 16 teams that aren't in the NCAA Tournament or NIT. The entrance fee is $50,000 for participating teams, as participating teams are set to play at the Ocean Center in Florida.
For Golding, who is still undecided on the subject, the possibility of playing postseason seems unlikely from what he said in his postgame interview with the radio broadcast on Thursday.
"I don't know, we haven't talked a whole lot about it," Golding said after the loss Thursday. "There's probably some opportunities but sometimes it's good to have some finality to it and move on. We got to see the locker room. Every year is different. These guys have played so hard lately... I would say right now, we're leaning a bit toward not playing but who knows, things change."
The Miners might want to invest this time in recruiting instead, suggests Golding. With higher expectations coming next year and the transfer portal looming, having a strong emphasis on recruiting is probably best.
The coaching staff plans on being at the National Junior College basketball tournament in Kansas on Monday.
"We all need a break and we all need time," Golding said. "I'm leaving tomorrow and recruiting next week, but that's life. We won 19 games, got UTEP back on the map and now we can go sell what we're doing. It's a lot easier to sell that now than nine months ago. Challenging times, who knows what our roster is going to look like."
"But tonight's not about that. Tonight's about our guys and how hard they played," coach continued. "I'm super proud of them."
As far as the type of player the staff will look for in recruiting, Golding says the uncertainty of the roster is what could drive their recruiting efforts.
"I don't know, we'll see," said Golding on the subject of what he's looking for in recruiting. "It's the new era of college basketball. You have to be prepared for anything. Who knows what the future holds and what we'll be looking for."
Golding's tone on Thursday made it seem like some significant players on the current roster could be entering the transfer portal. Last year, Bryson Williams hit the portal and left for Texas Tech, where he was a first-team All-Big 12 player and as a Newcomer of the Year.
On "Senior Day," juniors Boum and Verhoeven, along with redshirt sophomore Kennedy, were honored in front of the Miner fan base. At the time, Golding deflected the honor by suggesting that he wanted to honor those that were graduating. Still, one must wonder if the trio played their last game as a Miner on Thursday. One must also remember the fact that a significant group of players on the current roster were fist recruited by Rodney Terry, not Golding.
The transfer portal always hovers over UTEP and this year will be telling to see who stays and who departs. Unfortunately for the Miners, sometimes these decisions are not from the players. They have coaches, friends and family back home that influence their future decisions when it's all said and done.