Stefon Jackson Speaks: Future of UTEP Basketball, Reflecting on the Past & Transfer Portal
As the Don Haskins Center echoed with cheers honoring UTEP basketball legend Stefon Jackson during halftime of their 71-49 win against NM State, his reflections on the changing dynamics of college basketball sparked contemplation about the future of the Miners' program on MinerTalk Saturday evening.
"To keep it all the way honest, if there were NIL deals when I was playing, I don't think I would've stuck around four years (at UTEP)," said Jackson, who had his jersey honored at halftime of UTEP's 25-point win against NM State on Saturday.
"You have to look at it. A lot of these players don't have the means or other (resources) to take care of their families. If someone is struggling in college (and a school) offers them a lot of money, they're going to take it. It's hard to keep good players now unless you have money. The players are doing what's best for their families."
Jackson's sentiment echoes a broader trend reshaping collegiate sports, where the excitement of NIL deals influence player decisions. His four-year run at UTEP from 2006-09 underscores a past era where four-year commitments were common in men's basketball. Today, however, the landscape has already shifted beyond control, raising questions about the feasibility of reaching milestones, like UTEP's all-time scoring record, in modern college basketball.
This isn't just a UTEP thing either.
According to Evan Miyakawa’s research done in March of 2023, every conference in the country lost at least 15% of its players to the transfer portal, with six conferences seeing over 30% of their players hit the portal. CUSA had 24% of their players hit the portal, according to this study.
About a month out from the CUSA Tournament, the Miners are in an interesting spot. Despite a season marked by ups and downs, UTEP (13-11, 4-5 CUSA) remains within striking distance of the top of the conference. Only three games separate the first place teams (Liberty & Sam Houston) with the last place teams (FIU & Middle Tennessee). Home teams are 32-10 in league play, which puts CUSA atop Division I basketball home win percentage (76%).
Looking beyond the current season, the inevitability of roster turnover looms large. Graduating seniors Tae Hardy, Zid Powell, Calvin Solomon, and Jon Dos Anjos will depart, leaving voids to fill. The signing of prospects like big man Jorge Moreno and 3-star point guard KJ Thomas offers hope for the future, but Miner fans have already voiced their concerns about retaining talent on the roster.
When talking about the future, some fans expressed on MinerTalk this past weekend that they are worried about losing true freshman guard David Terrell Jr., who is on pace to win CUSA Freshman of the Year. On Monday, Terrell Jr. earned his third consecutive CUSA Freshman of the Week honor, his fourth of the season. The true freshman point guard from Mansfield Summit (TX) is averaging 5.4 points, 1.9 assists and 1.4 steals per game. He's emerging as a reliable go-to guard in the backcourt for the Miners and he's played in key moments throughout CUSA play.
"I really want to get to the NCAA Tournament as many times as I can here," Terrell Jr. said before Monday's practice. "It is a program with rich history and I'm glad to be a part of it. I can't wait for what the future holds with the recruits we have."
Head coach Joe Golding didn't mince words when asked about what the future holds with Terrell Jr.
"He's going to be the starting point guard here for a long time and I think he's going to be a special player," Golding said. "You're seeing it as a freshman and you don't see this across the country... I think when he becomes a sophomore and he puts on 15 pounds of muscle, he continues to work on his game, get his outside shot going, he's going to be a really, really good player.
"The best thing about David Terrell Jr. is he's a winner and it's contagious with everybody," Golding continued. "He's got an incredible energy about him, people follow him, he's a leader. I think over time, he'll take over this locker room, this program, this team and it'll be a player-led program and it'll start with him."
In the face of the challenges with NIL and the transfer portal, Jackson's words serve as both a cautionary tale and a call to action. Although the basketball team is the only athletic program at UTEP that is supported by a third-party NIL collective, growing the Miner Collective will be important for not just incoming recruits, but also in retaining current players.
As UTEP navigates the evolving world of college basketball, the path forward demands adaptability and resilience. The Miners' ability to harness emerging talent, such as Terrell Jr., will shape their trajectory in the years to come.
For now, don't take David Terrell Jr. for granted.