UTEP 93 – N.M. Highlands 70: Five Takeaways From the Season Debut
UTEP is fun to watch, no matter the opponent
In the midst of the Miners cruising to a 93-70 victory over New Mexico Highlands, I sat behind the UTEP men’s basketball bench in awe, thinking to myself, UTEP basketball is fun to watch again.
They rolled out guards Daryl Edwards, Jordan Lathon and Souley Boum, along with forwards Bryson Williams and Eric Vila to start the game and, as expected, fired on all cylinders. UTEP shot a steady 54.8 percent from the floor, held N.M. Highlands to just 18.5 percent shooting and led the Cowboys 44-29 at the half.
The really fun part was seeing the different rotations thrown out by head coach Rodney Terry. Forward Efe Odigie stormed out off the bench and finished with a crisp 20 points off 8-of-10 shooting, with six boards and just one turnover. We saw different action from Tydus Verhoeven (9 minutes), Deon Stroud (17 minutes) and Anthony Tarke (5 minutes) off the bench as well.
Odigie led the Miners in scoring, followed by Edwards and Williams with 17 points each, while Boum (15) and Vila (11) finished in double figures. Lathon had a great game facilitating the ball as the point guard, finishing with five assists and zero turnovers. He also chipped in with seven points and six rebounds in 32 minutes of action.
UTEP turned the ball over 20 times and allowed the Cowboys to shoot 53.3 percent (8-of-15) from 3-point range in the second half.
Even though the season opener drew just 3,738 fans, a 23-point victory over the Cowboys felt fun to watch at the Don on Tuesday.
Eric Vila is good—Say it louder!
There was a lot of hate going Eric Vila’s way on social media following the game, most of which I felt was unjust. The 6-foot-10 forward had a pretty noteworthy night, minus a pair of turnovers.
Vila’s ability to space the floor as a center, generate a ton of offense and be a leader on the floor makes him special. His passing was ridiculous against N.M. Highlands, finishing as the leader in assists (6). He finished with a stat line of 11 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, two turnovers and a block through 29 minutes. That sounds pretty special to me. Vila also led the team in efficiency rating at +20 when he was on the floor.
The gripe right now might not necessarily be against Vila but more toward not seeing enough Odigie to start, which I understand. Odigie is an All C-USA Freshman forward, who was robbed of not being named All C-USA last year. He’s deserving of big minutes and his 20 point, six rebound performance in 22 minutes proved that he’s hungry for success.
Also, Odigie and Vila made a great duo down low as Williams sat the majority of the first half due to foul trouble. They connected on nice plays together and look like they have some great chemistry as a powerful one-two punch in the paint.
Balancing the minutes in the frontcourt is a good problem to which I’ll defer to Terry and the coaching staff to allocate the minutes accordingly.
Deon Stroud is as savvy as they described him
UTEP's 6-foot-5 freshman combo guard Deon Stroud was let loose on the court during the Miners' win and was a treat to watch.
Before the season started, almost every key player you talked to made sure to rave about the potential that Stroud possesses. And before he stepped foot on campus, he was rated a 3-star prospect by ESPN out of high school. The Fresno, Calif. native acts like the little brother on the team—in all the good ways—and could morph into a wildcard rotational player for the Miners down the stretch.
Stroud finished with four points, three boards and a pair of steals through 17 minutes of action. He had a pair of turnovers but made up for it on defense with his athleticism.
Each time he was subbed out, Stroud came to the bench shaking his head. He wasn't content with his performance. He wants to be better and I liked the competitiveness.
Hawkins out, Ezeagu to redshirt
UTEP sophomore guard Nigel Hawkins did not suit out for the season opener due to a tough fall he suffered last week in practice, per Terry. He will be back in practice by the end of the week and will be good to go for NMSU next week.
Sophomore forward Kaosi Ezeagu will be, as foreseen, redshirted this year to focus on his development. Good move there by the team as this frontcourt is as loaded as can be and minutes for Ezeagu would be scarce. As Terry described it in the postgame interview, this is a good year for him to focus on getting better in practice and integrating himself as a significant role player on this team.
Last year he played in 29 games for UTEP, started in eight games and led the team with 24 blocked shots. He also finished with the best field goal percentage (56.9) on the team and averaged 3.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
Battle of I-10 approaches
Right down the way from the Don Haskins Center, NMSU dominated Western New Mexico 92-46 en route to their first win of the season. The Aggies were led by Jabari Rice's 21 points off the bench as head coach Chris Jans played the majority of his players through balanced minutes.
For four straight years, NMSU has swept UTEP in the rivalry and has a nine-game win streak in the Battle of I-10. Tipoff for next Tuesday is set for 7 p.m.
It will definitely be a war.