Looking Back: UTEP Basketball ‘Overachieved’ Expectations in Non-Conference Play
We've reached the halfway point of Rodney Terry's first season as head coach of the Miners (5-6), which gives us the perfect opportunity to reflect on the team's first 11 games.
Terry and his staff were tasked to juggle a complete roster overhaul, which included five players that are sitting out this season, per NCAA transfer rules. Not to mention the fact that they are coaching four freshmen role players.
There was at least some leeway as far as expectations for the first year of coach Terry's new regime.
Needless to say, these first two months showed that there is no true "rebuilding" process for UTEP and if there were any points of rebuilding, they've quickly silenced them.
The next step for this team, as Terry explains, is to understand their worth.
"They've overachieved and their curve is coming pretty quick," Terry said following his final non-conference game against Wyoming. "I said to our guys prior to the game that at some point our next step for our team is to believe that we're pretty good. I think we're pretty good, I want you to believe we are pretty good. I think we can play with anyone in our league. We can also lose to everyone in our league. But you have to believe what we are doing and how we are doing it and that's the next step."
With a 5-6 overall record and their biggest win coming against UC Riverside or Wyoming, there might not be much to brag about just yet. Their close losses at Marquette, New Mexico State and New Mexico give UTEP a formidable starting point, though.
"We still have a lot of room to grow, they're all young players," Terry said. "[Against Wyoming] we were up 17 and then they think the game's over. Game isn't over, you have to work the game until the horn goes off. But that's a young team. You are always coaching a young team.
"I wish I could sit down and let these guys play a bit, but we're not at that point right now. Everything is a teachable moment for these young guys. But I give them credit, they have a great attitude and great approach," he continued.
Still, the naysayers will point out their 75-62 disgruntled loss to Norfolk State, who entered the game at 3-8, as reasons to why this team is far from achieving greatness. The very next day in the Sun Bowl Invitational, though, UTEP went from shooting 27 percent from the floor in their loss to Norfolk State to shooting 47 percent in their 76-65 win over Wyoming.
The quick turnover made the loss seem more like a blemish and fluke than an indication of where the team is at as a whole.
"Thought [Norfolk State] was our second-worst game of the year in terms of effort," Terry said. "What a difference a day makes in attacking the zone. We didn't change much, we just made shots. We got those same shots last night and we didn't make them."
Preparation and coaching has a lot to do with the Miners snapping the learning curve and becoming contenders, but coach Terry will be the first to praise his players during this first stretch.
For the returnees (Paul Thomas, Evan Gilyard and Kobe Magee), the past two months have been unlike any basketball they've played at the program.
While Thomas started off sluggish for the Miners as the lone senior, he has improved in back-to-back games and is starting to find his groove. Magee's minutes have decreased because of the increased usage of UTEP's young guards, but he still averages about three assists per game.
Gilyard simply picked up this season where he left off last year. He is shooting a C-USA best 45.3 percent from 3-point range (29th best in the nation) and leads the Miners in scoring at 18.4 points per game. He used this holiday break to get completely healthy.
"Stay in the gym," Gilyard said sternly about his holiday plans. "I have my high school gym back in Chicago and I'll be in there every day. Even though I know I have to have time with my family and stuff, I won't have as much time with my family as much as I have time in the gym."
Where do you start with the newcomers?
First with the three starting freshmen—Efe Odigie, Nigel Hawkins and Jordan Lathon.
Odigie is now first in C-USA for rebounds per game (9.2), second in defensive rebounds per game (6.9) and, probably most significantly, second in C-USA for double-doubles (five). His emergence through the end of November to now has earned him two C-USA Freshman of the Week honors.
"That man is different. It's not a fluke," Gilyard said about Odigie. "He's in the gym every day. He works on his turnaround jumpers, free throws. It's nothing new. When I'm in the gym, I see him working on it. For him to come in this program, it's just his touch and the way he approaches the game is different from other big men. He applies himself to get better and wants to be a better player."
The two guard combo in Lathon and Hawkins have emerged for the Miners nicely as well. Lathon stormed through the month of December by scoring in double figures in four of the five games for UTEP. Hawkins, who came off an injury to his shooting wrist, is now averaging the third-best scoring on the team at 10 points per game.
"As a team, keep building," Hawkins said when asked about things that the team needs to tune up. "Come back and keep working the game and closing the game out better. Once we have a lead, keep it and maintain it."
Freshman forward Kaosi Ezeagu is also pushing along with the bunch. His spark off the bench doesn't show on the stat sheet, but his defense has the potential to be among the best on the team. He averages almost four boards in just under 10 minutes of action and defends the paint extremely well.
New additions of Ountae Campbell and Gilles Dekoninick have also helped the Miners in depth. Campbell does all the in's and out's for UTEP, averaging about four points, three boards and a steal per game. Dekoninick has seen his playing time decrease a bit, but when he's in, he does his part defensively and can shoot a decent jumper.
Even though the Miners are young, they are remarkably talented and believe they can compete with anyone in C-USA. Like the Miners, the top three teams in the league—North Texas (13-1), Louisiana Tech (11-3) and Old Dominion (10-3)—each don't have a remarkable non-conference win, thus making the league open to anyone.
"I'm proud of this group," Terry said. "We still have a lot of room for growth. Hopefully, we'll come back hungry for more in conference play."