Ten Things We Can Expect From UTEP Men’s Basketball This Year
Oh man, oh man, basketball season is here earlier than usual, and tonight the Miners take the hardwood to face UT Permian Basin for their season opener.
It will be a chance for everyone at the Don to see what kind of team Rodney Terry's bunch will be and also a chance for the newcomers to show off their talents in front of the Miner fans.
Although not much is known about this team, here are ten things we can expect from UTEP men's basketball this season:
Paul Thomas will play a vital role on this team
As the lone senior on the men's basketball team, 6-foot-8 forward Paul Thomas will transition his role from an active starter to a lead-by-example senior on this squad. Terry has expressed how much Thomas has bought to the system and what his leadership role means to the team.
"I think Paul has been bought into what we’re asking him to do," Terry said. "We’ve put a lot on his shoulders as the lone senior to compete at the level we want."
This season will be an interesting one for Thomas. Last year, Thomas' stats digressed from his sophomore season. He went from averaging 8.6 points and 6.1 boards per game in 2016-17 to averaging 8.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last season.
And it was a tough one last year, no doubt. Center Matt Willms battled through injuries all of last season and so did freshman Tirus Smith, which would leave Thomas to be the "big man" down low. When your team's tallest player on the floor is 6-foot-8, it doesn't bode well for your team no matter how good the player is.
This season, Thomas will get to play the true 4-spot that he's always wanted. It will allow him to shoot more mid-range jumpers that he executed so well during his sophomore season and open up plays down low for guys like Efe Odigie and Kaosi Ezeagu.
"I feel good," Thomas said. "The guys have been working hard, we’ve all been working hard at practice. We got some good things done during the fall. One thing is for sure that we’re going to play hard."
Kobe Magee becomes a pass-heavy guard
Coming into this season, players dubbed sophomore guard Kobe Magee as the best shooter on the team. Some said he could make countless 3-pointers in a row, while others say his shot took a big step forward from last year.
Magee led Conference USA in three-point field goal percentage during C-USA play, shooting 53.1 percent beyond the arc during his freshman season.
But something most don't know is that under Terry, Magee has brought his passing game to a high level during this offseason. Terry called Magee a "willing passer," to which Magee himself brushed aside notions of him being the team's top shooter.
"I don’t focus on [being the best shooter]," Magee said. "I look to get others involved first, especially the freshmen themselves so they feel good. I’m just trying to be a better vocal leader, which is something I didn’t do last year. I’m trying to do that better this year."
But just how did he become the pass-first player that he is today? Simple: practice.
"I think that in practice coach Terry is always getting on me about my passes—snapping passes, making crisp passes, quicker passes—so having him in my ear about making stronger passes has helped me," he explained.
Lathon and Hawkins could finish as the top shooters
With Magee taking more of a pass-first role (which I personally expect him to still shoot some nice three's), the sharpshooter spot on the team is up for grabs. For Miner die-hards, there's nothing like the noise of the Don Haskins Center after a player drills a 3-pointer. But who will be that guy for UTEP this year?
The first one that comes to mind is freshman guard Nigel Hawkins. The 6-foot-4 Houston native has the length to stretch the floor how he wishes and his length makes him a desirable offensive threat. He was able to put big numbers up in the Miners scrimmage against Grand Canyon, and although he's currently out with a hand injury, Hawkins could be a top sixth man for the Miners this season.
Then comes freshman Jordan Lathon, who is also a 6-foot-4 combo guard on the Miners. He joins the team as a four-star recruit ranked as a top-150 player by 247sports.com. When you first watch Lathon, he shows a lot of shades of Lee Moore.
Lathon's shot passes the eye test and he could also be a sharpshooter for this bunch.
Odigie and Ezeagu need to play lengthy minutes
It's always special when a team gets to debut two new big men, and we will see two of those right off the bat with freshmen forwards Efe Odigie and Kaosi Ezeagu. But with that in mind, each will need to play lengthy minutes for the Miners, per Terry.
Historically and through the Tim Floyd regime, sometimes it would seem as if the big men down low were unconditioned, which required constant substitutions. Floyd himself would agree that at times his big men weren't properly conditioned to play extended minutes.
However, Terry said something yesterday that was striking to this notion: "we want to be a team that is well conditioned." It's relieving to know that Terry's priorities stand with the team's conditioning, which will bode well with a smaller rotation.
Odigie easily passes the eye test. He's a hefty forward with a 6-foot-9 build. While the team will work him in the post, he will also be called upon to be a mid-range shooter. He's the bruiser-type forward any team would want.
Ezeagu, a 6-foot-10 forward out of Canada, will be the reserve to Odigie and Thomas. He's a stretch 5 with tremendous upside. Comparing him to a guy like Tirus Smith, Ezeagu will serve as a big man that puts emphasis on defense and can even shoot from the perimeter. He has the potential to be a fan favorite.
Evan Gilyard will score plenty for this team
Sophomore guard Evan Gilyard's grit makes him a guard that will never back down from anything. And his numbers speak for themselves. As a freshman, he averaged 9.1 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 3.9 assists per game and 0.8 steals per game, while shooting 38.1 percent from the field, 29.2 percent from outside and 84.4 percent from the charity stripe. His 84.4 free throw percentage last year was a new UTEP freshman record as well.
Gilyard is a hard-nosed guard that will help the Miners down the stretch this season as a point guard veteran. But he might be an off-ball guard and get the first pass out of the gate from guys like Magee or Lathon. Gilyard is expected to score this season and if he does a lot of it, the Miners will improve down the stretch.
Walk-ons can prove themselves early
Undergoing such a thin lineup, the Miners might even dive into their walk-on's this season to add some depth to certain positions. Freshmen guards Jakobe Dill and Garrett Sullivan and forward Gilles Dekoninck will get opportunities to prove themselves this year as worthy reserves and could fight for minutes.
Dekoninck might be their best option as far as walk-on's go for help off the bench. He played in seven games for Terry and Fresno State last season and already knows his system.
Their bench is tight; rotations could be too
With just seven scholarship players available to pick from in year one of the Terry regime, the Miners will have to be tight with their rotations, especially in the first month of action.
Their projected starters in game one will be Thomas, Odigie, Magee, Lathon and Gilyard, with Ezeagu and possibly Dekoninck coming off the bench early on. Once healthy, Hawkins will either work his way into the starting lineup or serve as an off-the-bench help for UTEP.
Since they're working with such a small, seven-eight man rotation, the Miners could fall behind in some games, whether it be from fouling out, or players in foul trouble. Should the team bar another injury, it could also mean an even thinner bench than now.
Expect guys like Thomas, Gilyard and Magee to play upwards of 35 minutes a night.
"We don’t have a lot of bench this season," Terry explains. "We’re thin. With seven scholarship guys, down one of our better players, we have six guys right now for scholarship players and we need our walk-on’s to come in. Right now our young guys got to play. That’s the beauty of this year. They’re going to get a chance to play, play through mistakes, learn to play hard and learn to play at this level."
UTEP will have to score by committee at first
At his press conference yesterday, Terry talked about how the team will put up points by a score by committee approach. That means one night it could be Gilyard, one night it could be Thomas or one night it could be Hawkins with the hot-hand. The floor is open for a leading scorer to emerge and players will have to step up in order to do so.
"This team has a really good chance to be a good passing team and from an offensive standpoint, we might not have a dominant scorer," Terry said. "Start of the year will be by committee."
A dark horse candidate for the team's leading scorer by December could be Lathon. With his athleticism, height and upside, mashed with his ability to shoot, he could be the guy the Miners turn to for buckets if he starts hot.
Problem with not having a true leading scorer begs the question, who does the team turn to when they need a last-minute bucket?
It's not how they start, but how they finish
Everyone across the city reacted when the touted Miners began shaky last season, starting 1-6. The Tim Floyd departure mixed with other players leaving the program made matters worse for the bunch.
This season, the team is young, hungry and as Terry puts it, "coachable." They will make mistakes, which even Thomas said they will do. But growth and progression will be highly monitored this year.
"You never want to be a feel-good team," Terry said. "There’s always going to be some adversity that you will go through. Our team is going to have to learn to work the team at a high level. You never want a team to be a feel-good team."
Although Terry has five players that will sit out this year, such as Souley Boum (San Francisco), Anthony Tarke (NJIT), Tydus Verhoeven (Duquesne), Bryson Williams (Fresno State) and Deon Stroud (Prop-48), this season is not a year to punt away for the Miners. Terry wants to remain competitive and "play hard" this year, as he continues to reiterate.
"I like it for our first year," Terry said. "We are starting from ground zero here, just like where we started in the first year at Fresno State. We’re going to sit some really good players out that will be good contributors here in the future. We’re going to play with our young guys this year and this year will be very valuable to them."
They will need to find their identity before December to be successful
At his press conference, Terry mentioned the importance of the team eventually finding its identity. And it's true, they do.
They need to figure out if they want to be a 3-point shooting team, if they want to be defense-heavy, or if they want to grind each game out differently. Who knows. Should this team find its niche before C-USA play, they could go on a hot streak in conference and go toe-to-toe with some of the best.
"This team has a very high ceiling," Terry said. "This group from the start to the end, we have so much room for growth. That’s what excites me the most about this season."