UTEP Basketball: An Offseason Filled With Uncertainty Lies Ahead
For points of the 2020-21 UTEP men’s basketball season, there was hope that the program would take the next step. Other moments, it was fools gold.
Now the Miners are left to regroup in another offseason filled with uncertainty.
The season came to an abrupt ending on Wednesday night after a largely back-and-forth battle against Florida Atlantic went in favor of the Owls, 76-70. Despite some questionable late game calls—32 personal fouls called in the second half alone—the Miners went without a field goal for a 6:31 stretch to close out the game in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament in Frisco.
“The ball could’ve bounced either way,” said third-year head coach Rodney Terry. “We had some good momentum with about 2:30 to go and I thought that was a critical play when they called [Williams] out of bounds when he wasn’t out of bounds. That was a critical play. We go up three on that play and then we have to go down and get a stop. They got to the line a lot and that was really the only way they were scoring for the better part of the second half.”
Miner fans were left frustrated yet again with a program that hasn’t won a C-USA Tournament game since the 2016-17 season under Tim Floyd. They finished the year 12-12 overall, and .500 in conference play (8-8). Calling this season a success or failure is an overreaction on both sides. This felt like a stagnant year for the program. They finished right around the same mark as they did last year (17-15, 8-10 C-USA in 2019-20), where they were also bounced out in the first round of the league tournament.
“With the kind of season we had and what they’ve had to work through and endure, this group stayed the course, worked hard, done everything I asked them to do,” Terry added. “They worked through waking up and getting tested three times a week at seven in the morning. Wasn’t easy by any stretch. They enjoyed playing with each other and got better as the season went along. I’m disappointed because I told our guys that I felt we could beat anyone on a neutral court. You always have to treat that first game like a championship game. That’s what we tried to do and we just came up a little short.”
The fans, for the most part, weren’t having any of it following the loss.
What to make of the upcoming offseason
In his postgame conversation with Jon Teicher, coach Terry came off pretty upfront when he talked about the offseason. The word “continuity” was thrown out continuously and Terry believes that if he is able to return a majority of his group, the Miners have a shot of “taking the next step.”
“If you told me that in a perfect world that I was able to bring everyone back and add a couple pieces, man I like my chances,” he said. “We need more shooting and someone who can defend on the other side as well. We’ll probably need more ball handling. There will be a number of areas that we will try to address. We’ve got to get back in and try to retain as much of our team as we can. We have a talented group.”
Keeping the majority of the roster or even their core guys could end up being easier said than done. Last year, the program saw six players enter the transfer portal. They replaced them with a batch of Division I transfers like Jamal Bieniemy, Kristian Sjolund and Christian Agnew.
Then there’s the looming decision for senior Bryson Williams. Is there a chance that the Third Team All Conference forward elects to play another season, per the NCAA ruling for an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Or, does Williams go pro and test his skills either internationally or at the G-League level? The sneaky, worst-case-scenario look for UTEP would be Williams leaving to become a graduate transfer at a Power-5 school, which he’s totally capable of doing.
Based on his age and how long he’s been playing college basketball, I think Williams leaves UTEP this offseason.
“We’ve said purposefully that we weren’t going to deal with that until the end of the season,” Terry said about Williams’ decision. “We wanted to play the season out and concentrate on what’s at hand this year. Between he and his family, we will sit down and determine what’s best for his career moving forward. He’s been terrific for us for two years.”
If Williams leaves, the program will default to junior guard Souley Boum as their next leader. Boum was the third best scorer in C-USA at 18.6 ppg, though at times flashed his inefficiencies, especially in late game situations. Still, the jump Boum took from his first year at UTEP to now is noteworthy. But he can’t be expected to carry the weight alone.
Let’s side with Terry for a minute. If they returned their core besides Williams, that could mean junior Efe Odigie slides into the forward spot and assumes a starting role. Is a lineup comprised of Bieniemy, Boum, Kennedy, Odigie and Tydus Verhoeven one that you can win a conference championship with? Short answer, no. They need to reload with a playmaking forward and they need to add quality shooting to their team.
Conversely, if the team loses three or more of its eight-man rotation, then the “continuity” that Terry is talking about goes out the window and it's back to square one.
Should Williams stay for his sixth year in college basketball, the Miners will still need to add depth to their roster in order to try and compete for a conference title.
The dreadful transfer portal is another factor to keep in mind. UTEP could “re-recruit” their current roster all they want, but all it takes is someone back home to get in a players’ ear and convince them that the grass is greener elsewhere. The NCAA transfer portal has already seen 400-plus players wanting to transfer away from their program.
“Everyone at this time has to go back and re-recruit your team because the portal is what it is for college athletics,” Terry said. “If we’re able to retain our guys—that’s where you make the next step in terms of continuity. If you’re able to keep your core guys, that’s when you’re able to take your program to another level.”
No doubt there will be Miners in the transfer portal. No doubt there will be roster turnover. And as he’s proven before, there is no doubt Terry will recruit some noteworthy players to UTEP.
State of the program
I don’t think anyone in the Miners men’s basketball program anticipated being bounced out in the first round of the C-USA Tournament. They won four consecutive C-USA games to close out the year. The team took No. 13 Kansas to the final minutes and barely lost, 67-62 just a week ago. Yet when it mattered most, the Miners couldn’t come through against Florida Atlantic.
Terry is now 37-48 overall at UTEP, featuring a 19-33 (.327) record in league play. He’ll remain intact as the head coach through the 2023-24 season, per the extension he received by the athletic department in October of 2020.
Chalk this season up to coaching. Blame some of the players. Hell, blame the officiating that hurt the Miners on Wednesday night. Throw the COVID-19 pandemic factor in the mix. Make any excuse you’d like to for this program.
The bottom line is that UTEP was a pretty average team that showed flashes of greatness and spurts of terrible play. It’s up to the program to prove to the doubters that they can be competitive in this conference and finally contend for a league title.
Can the 11+ year NCAA Tournament drought finally be broken for this storied program? It still seems like the Miners are far from becoming an NCAA Tournament team.
#MinerTalk Season Wrap Up
Thanks to everyone for joining us on another great sports season of MinerTalk. Special thanks to our awesome co-host/do-it-all guy, Sal Montes, who is one of the hardest working guys in the business. Much appreciation goes to Steve Kaplowitz, Jon Teicher, Kevin Vargas and Brad Dubow for helping make this MinerTalk season possible. And a huge shoutout to our title sponsor Longhorn Distributing, along with our two awards sponsors in Win Supply El Paso for our Hot Hand award and Keats Southwest for the Player of the Game award.
And most of all, thanks to everyone that listened, called in, tweeted the show and rocked with us for the entire season.