The Biggest Storylines Around UTEP Basketball Before C-USA Play
Welcome to the start of Conference USA play.
The UTEP men's basketball squad (7-5) will prepare for its first league campaign under first-year head coach Joe Golding and the action tips off on Thursday at UAB (5:30 p.m MT). Voice of the Miners Jon Teicher will be on the call.
Let's get into the biggest storylines that are surrounding the Miners.
Can the dark cloud of adversity leave the UTEP basketball program?
We get it, adversity has hit college sports in a huge way due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the UTEP basketball squad, one can start quantifying the adversity they have faced.
Due to complications involving COVID, injuries (including two concussions to two different starters) and a stomach flu, the Miners lead the nation with 10 different starting lineups in 12 games. At least one starter has missed a game through four straight matchups. Only Keonte Kennedy, Bonke Maring and Kevin Kalu have been active for all 12 games this year.
"This season for me has been rough," said junior guard Souley Boum, who dealt with a stomach bug last week and missed the NC Central game. "Not trying to make excuses. Broken hand, COVID, sit out, sick against McNeese and then the stomach flu. I haven't felt normal for the whole part of the season. It's been tough for me but I'm playing through it. Our team has a lot adversity. But tough people get through stuff like that and good things will happen."
For coach Golding, the roadblocks have prevented the coaching staff from fully understanding the true potential of this team.
"One thing after another," said Golding. "We just have to keep battling. Got to get guys to play hard. Got to figure out what group we have. The problem is, when you're getting close in tight games, we don't tend to show as much discipline as other teams. It's not our team's fault because when you have [players] out, it makes it difficult."
Second-leading scorer Keonte Kennedy could be out for Thursday
Guess my first question was answered rather quickly.
The roadblocks could continue for the Miners this week as guard Keonte Kennedy's status is uncertain and potentially doubtful for Thursday's game. Golding would not specify what the injury is but Kennedy was not active at practice on Tuesday and it's uncertain if he will even make the trip to Birmingham for the UAB game.
"We'll see," Golding said regarding Kennedy. "He's getting an MRI (Tuesday). It will be a game-time decision. We're running out of time, so we'll see. The way it looks right now, I would say no."
The setback comes at an inopportune time for Kennedy, who is truly playing his best basketball right now. He scored 20-or-more points in three straight games (New Mexico, McNeese and NC Central) and is now averaging the second-best scoring effort at 13.3 points per game. Kennedy is also the team's leading rebounder with 5.9 per game and he leads the team in steals (2.1 per game).
"I thought [Keonte's] been really good," Golding said. "Going back to when he played point guard at New Mexico, I thought he caught New Mexico by surprise and did a great job of running our team. Came back and was great against McNeese. He's one of our better defenders. He's got length. He's got size. He's one of the better rebounding guards I've ever coached. Tough break for him but if we've learned anything, when adversity strikes, guys have to step up and hopefully that makes us tougher."
Tydus Verhoeven is back on the court
Senior forward Tydus Verhoeven missed the last three contests with a concussion, but he rejoined the team this week following the holiday break. Prior to the concussion, Verhoeven struggled with a back injury that had been nagging for him.
He has played in nine of the 12 games for the Miners this year. When asked about the roller coaster season, Verhoeven was brutally honest.
"Hectic. Crazy. Ludacris," Verhoven answered. "It feels like every day something is happening. I've never been a part of something like that. That's the landscape now. It made us a better team and a better unit so hopefully that helps us in conference play. Tough watching three games but I took it as an advantage that I got to step back and observe going into conference play."
Mini Q&A with freshman Kevin Kalu
AB: "Kevin, what's it like being a college student?"
KK: "I'm learning a lot. It's a challenge because it's learning about things like time management."
Q: "How can you all get better down the season?"
KK: "Keep playing hard, keep playing for each other and keep trusting the process."
AB: "How did you get into basketball?"
KK: "At first I used to wrestle. Everybody would say, 'you're so tall, why don't you play basketball?' I gave it a try. I wasn't really nice at first but I kept working."
AB: "What was the recruiting process like?"
KK: "I didn't have any offers because of COVD. No coaches could come out to me and watch. I started getting offers late when AAU started back up. That's why I committed so late to UTEP."
AB: "What was the C-USA Freshman of the Week award like for you?"
KK: "It felt good. I know I just got to keep working a lot. There's a lot I can improve on."
First look at Conference USA
It seems like the three highly regarded teams in C-USA—UAB (10-3), LA Tech (9-3) and Western Kentucky (8-5)—have lived up to expectations so far in the non-conference slate. However, there are a few teams in C-USA that have emerged over the first part of the season.
Don’t overlook North Texas (7-3), who is hoping to have a stellar season following their 2021 NCAA Tournament upset win over Purdue.
Not many expected FIU (8-3) and Middle Tennessee (9-4) to have started the year the way they have. The Panthers and Blue Raiders were picked to finish last in the league by the C-USA Preseason Poll.
The Miners are somewhat in the middle right now of C-USA. They were picked to finish 10th in the league. Golding has high standards for league play and this squad.
“I think we've faced really good teams in non-conference,” said Golding. “You have 18 games [in C-USA]. You try to steal as many games on the road and protect home."
The C-USA preseason favorites to win the league in UAB (10-3) look about as deadly as ever under head coach Andy Kennedy. The Blazers are a perfect 8-0 at Bartow arena this year, while winning each matchup by 14+.
UAB is first in C-USA for scoring offense (82 ppg), scoring margin (21.2), steals per game (12.4) and turnover margin (8.6). The Blazers are led by Jordan Walker (15.9 ppg, 4.8 apg) and Quan Jackson (10.8 ppg, 2.8 steals per game).
"They're really good. I voted UAB to win the league. Didn't know anything about them but the players they recruited and have a lot of respect for coach Kennedy and his coaching staff. You can see last year they had the building blocks for good stuff. [We] got an opportunity to go on the road, play the best team in conference right off the bat so it's a challenge but it's a challenge our guys are excited about.”