The UTEP men's basketball team starts their season next month, so it's finally time for us to start talking some Miner hoops.

The 2020-21 college athletics season has been flipped upside its head amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as universities across the country scramble to gear up for the upcoming basketball year. Nonetheless, the season tips off in late November and it gives us a chance to preview the season with things we know and things we're looking for leading up to the season.

Head Coach: Rodney Terry (10th Season Coaching)

Head Coaching Record: 151-144

UTEP Record: 25-36 (3rd Season)

Gaby Velasquez
Gaby Velasquez

2020-21 UTEP basketball preview 

Returning players: Souley Boum (RS Jr., 6'3, Shooting Guard)Eric Vila (RS Sr., 6'11, Forward), Bryson Williams (RS Sr., 6'8, Forward), Tydus Verhoeven (RS Jr., 6'9, Forward), Efe Odigie (RS Jr., 6'9, Forward), Gilles Dekoninck (RS Jr., 6'6, Forward)

The Miners feel confident bringing back their two leading scorers to provide some leadership to this year's bunch. They are led by standout senior forward Bryson Williams (17.2 points, 7.9 rebounds per game), who is coming off First Team All-Conference honors. Redshirt junior guard Souley Boum (12.9 points) is back from last year's team as the second-leading scorer on the team. The San Francisco transfer is a high IQ off-ball guard who can draw contact and can hit free throws at a high clip. Redshirt junior forward Tydus Verhoeven closed out the season last year starting games for the Miners and will have an opportunity to earn a starting job when the season starts.

Other returners from last year include redshirt senior forward Eric Vila, redshirt junior forward Efe Odigie and redshirt junior forward Gilles Dekoninck. Odigie is back for his third season with the Miners. Even though the team is deep at the forward position, the Houston native will compete for playing time on this roster. He averaged 6.0 points and 3.8 rebounds last year, following his All C-USA Freshman season in 2018-19 when he averaged a double-double. The coaching staff believes Vila, who shot poorly in 2019-20 (28% FG and 22% 3-point FG), can shake off last year to provide depth in the frontcourt this year.

Gaby Velasquez
Gaby Velasquez

Non-returning from last year: Jordan Lathon (Guard, Wisconsin-Milwaukee); Kaosi Ezeagu (Forward, Kansas State); Nigel Hawkins (Guard, Stephen F. Austin); Deon Stroud (Guard, Fresno State); Kaden Archie (Guard, Georgia State); Anthony Tarke (Forward/GuardCoppin State)

UTEP saw a very active transfer portal frenzy following their 11th place finish in C-USA last year. Six players left the program from last year's roster. But if you asked the coaching staff about the talent they supplemented for those players that left, the staff would probably tell you they're more than satisfied with the players they have now.

Jordan Lathon and Nigel Hawkins entered the transfer portal in a rare mid-season move this year, but both elected to rejoin the team and stick with the group until the end of the year. Forward Kaosi Ezeagu planned on taking a redshirt season with the Miners, but by midyear, he elected to transfer to Kansas State.

Lathon, who started 22 games for the Miners, left to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Hawkins left for Stephen F. Austin. Deon Stroud shot 44% from the floor for UTEP last year and decided to go play for his hometown team at Fresno State. Similarly, Kaden Archie (Georgia State) and Anthony Tarke (Coppin State) left the program after their first full season on the team.

First, they added a stellar point guard in junior Oklahoma transfer Jamal Bienemy, who will be expected to take the reigns as the first true point guard coach Terry has had since he's been at UTEP. The Miners beat out the likes of Creighton and Michigan for Bienemy, who put up 5.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 steals in 31.9 minutes per game for the Sooners.

Other additions that will be immediately eligible and could compete for playing time include redshirt sophomore guard Keonte Kennedy (Xavier), redshirt sophomore forward Kristian Sjolund (Georgia Tech), redshirt sophomore guard Adam Hess (Salt Lake CC), freshman point guard Vuk Vulikic (Serbia) and junior guard Emmanuel White (Coastal Bend College).

The eligibility status for Christian Agnew is still in question for the Miners as he awaits his NCAA waiver for this year. Angew, a hard-nosed guard that can defend at a high level, led North Alabama in scoring last year at 13 points per game.

Kennedy and Sjolund have a shot at competing for starting roles on this team. Kennedy, a 6-foot-5 wing, sat out last year per NCAA transfer rules. He could be an x-factor for this group. Sjolund is a stretch-4 who can hit a perimeter shot and was a highly regarded recruit out of high school.

Hess is called upon to be a 3-point specialist for the team. Last year the Miners shot just 30% from 3-point range. Vulikic is a 21-year-old freshman point guard with international team play experience. The Serbia native is going to be a backup to Bienemy this year. White is also expected to provide depth in the backcourt.

Gaby Velasquez
Gaby Velasquez

A Look Back at 2019-20 (17-15, 8-10 C-USA)

After an exciting 8-1 start to the season, many had high expectations for last year's UTEP men's basketball squad. They downed the NCAA national champion runner-ups Texas Tech in a charity exhibition game. For the first time in years, they beat both of their rivals—New Mexico (66-63) and NM State (65-60). Momentum was on their side following their first Sun Bowl Invitational title in five years. Things were rolling for the team.

Then, reality sunk in and handling adversity became an issue for the team.

The Miners lost three of their final four non-conference games from last year, including a loss to a solid Houston team. Their trip to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic quickly became disastrous, as UTEP lost in the final seconds against Hawaii in the opening round and also fell to Boise State in the final round. Following the midseason tournament, both Lathon and Hawkins entered the transfer portal on separate instances before the start of league play.

Despite a brilliant 8-1 start, the Miners went 5-13 into conference play and they simply didn't look like the same team. They lacked a true point guard and shifted between Lathon and Hawkins—when both guards rejoined the team—to try and find some consistency. Williams, Boum and grad transfer Daryl Edwards were the main scoring options for the team. The Miners regrouped at the end of the season and reeled off a four-game winning streak against the bottom of the league's teams in C-USA Bonus Play.

UTEP finished 11th in the conference last year after bowing out to Marshall in the opening round of the C-USA Tournament. They had a sharp home record (13-4), but UTEP struggled on the road (3-9).

Projected Starting Five: 

Gaby Velasquez
Gaby Velasquez

2020-21 Outlook

The coaching staff believes that they have a roster made up of guys that will buy into their system and play their respective roles at UTEP to be more successful than last year. The majority of the team has been in El Paso working out since the summer and the staff has been emphasizing safety and precaution during the pandemic.

UTEP brings back their two top scorers, returns several frontcourt players and brings in a heap of transfers that could help out immediately. The Miners struggled on offense last year, ranking No. 273 with an adjusted offensive efficiency of 96.9 (KenPom). Defensively, they were much improved last year and boasted one of the best scoring defenses and perimeter defenses in the league.

The Miners believe they have the talent to compete for a C-USA title, but can they prove they are just as good on the road as they were at home last year? Coach Terry has high expectations for this program for years to come. Despite the sluggish end to last year, Terry has maintained that turning around a program like UTEP takes time. Time will tell if the clock is rolling in year three as the Miners try to find more success and stand out in C-USA.

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Gaby Velasquez

Two Questions:

Can the Miners improve significantly on their 3-point shooting?

The Miners had a really tough year shooting the 3-ball last season. As a team, they shot just 30.1% beyond the arc on the year and averaged 6.6 3-pointers per game. Williams (36% 3PT) leads the way among returning players, while guys like Boum (29%) and Vila (21%) look to have a much improved season hitting a 3-pointer. They should get some perimeter scoring from newcomers like Kennedy, Sjolund and Hess.

Can UTEP be in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament berth when it's all said and done? 

I don't need to remind UTEP fans this but the program has been on a major drought from the NCAA Tournament and this coaching staff is looking to change things quickly. UTEP hasn't made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010. The school hasn't won a tournament game since 1992. As much of a basketball town that El Paso is, a 28 year stretch of no tournament wins is frustrating and discouraging.

However, suggesting that this UTEP team has its eyes set on an NCAA Tournament appearance is way too early. Last year's squad gave flashes of greatness, but as C-USA is traditionally a one-bid league, the Miners need to worry first about winning their league before they can think beyond that. If coach Terry and the Miners turned around an 11th place finish in 2020 to an NCAA Tournament spot in 2021, it would be a massive turnaround for the program.

Big Games in Non-Conference: New Mexico, NM State & Sun Bowl Invitational

Even though UTEP hasn't officially released its schedule for the upcoming season, we know of several built-in games. Most notably, the rivalry matchups between NM State and New Mexico will be major battles this year, especially with the Aggies returning former UTEP point guard Evan Gilyard. Because of COVID-19 protocols in the state of New Mexico, these games are definitely in question. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has been reluctant to college athletics playing amid the pandemic, as we've seen the Lobos have difficulties getting their football season started this fall.

Other guaranteed non-conference games for the Miners include the Sun Bowl Invitational. Coach Terry previously alluded to this field in the tournament being ultra-competitive, featuring some former conference champions out of the mid-major ranks.

C-USA Games to Watch: UTSA & Western Kentucky

Last week, C-USA announced an 18-game schedule for all of its affiliates this upcoming season. The difference will come with scheduling. Each team will play four league series at home and four series on the road. One rival opponent will make up the final two contests.

So there's no guarantee on who UTEP will play this year. For competition's sake, I hope the Miners get a chance to play Western Kentucky this year. The Hilltoppers have an NBA prospect in forward Charles Bassey. They also return guard Taveion Hollingsworth and forward Carson Williams to the team.

UTSA could be UTEP's rivalry matchup this year and the Roadrunners will be a great test for the Miners this year. All C-USA guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace are back again for UTSA and the monster duo hopes to replicate their prominent seasons last year. 

Interesting Things to Watch

  • Does Bryson Williams make a push for C-USA Player of the Year and further the discussion about his NBA draft potential?
  • Souley Boum was top-25 in NCAA (1st in C-USA) for his incredible free throw percentage (122-of-139, 87.8% FT). Can he put up similar numbers at the charity strip again this season?
  • UTEP hasn't won a conference tournament since 2005 (vs. Boise State, 91-78)
  • Defensively, the Miners were top-3 in C-USA (52nd in NCAA) for their perimeter defense, holding opponents to shooting just 30.6% from 3-point range.

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