UTEP Basketball Has Golden Opportunity for Mid-Year Hot Stretch
These next four games will tell us a lot about the UTEP men's basketball team.
Their schedule softens during the upcoming four-game stretch after playing tougher opponents through the first five games of C-USA play. In fact, the three opponents that the Miners lost to (UAB, LA Tech and Charlotte) have a combined 13-2 record in the league. Between UTSA (0-5), Florida International (0-4) and Florida Atlantic (2-2), the Miners' next three opponents have a combined C-USA record of 2-11.
UTEP (9-8, 2-3 C-USA) tips off the first of the four games this Thursday against the Roadrunners at home.
"Really proud of our guys; I think we grew a ton," said Joe Golding in his weekly radio show after the 78-70 overtime win at Old Dominion. "The script has already been written this year. We've faced a lot of adversity. You can either falter on that or you can continue to fight."
Jamal Bieniemy's hot streak
Point guard Jamal Bieniemy has been on an absolute tear since conference play started. In the scoring category, he has filled the role that Keonte Kennedy previously had as a scoring guard (13.3 ppg).
Through five C-USA games, all of which Kennedy missed with a foot injury, Bieniemy has averaged 18 points per game. On the season, Bieniemy is averaging 14.6 points (11th in C-USA), 3.4 assists (12th) and 1.87 steals per game (5th).
It's been an up and down season for Bieniemy, no doubt. He battled through a concussion that he suffered against No. 8 Kansas, which sidelined him for back-to-back games. Fortunately for the Miners, Bieniemy is playing his best basketball at the right time.
Can Souley Boum turn his season around?
There's no sugar coating it, guard Souley Boum is going through the toughest offensive stretch of his basketball career. Let's dive into the numbers for Boum over the seasons:
- 2017-18 (San Francisco): 10.9 ppg (36.3% FG, 36.5% 2-point FG 36.2% 3-point FG)
- 2019-20: 12.9 ppg (36.5% FG, 45.5% 2-point FG, 28.6% 3-point FG)
- 2020-21: 18.8 ppg (38% FG, 37.4% 2-point FG, 38.7% 3-point FG)
- 2021-22: 18.8 ppg (33.7% FG, 34.2% 2-point FG, 32.9% 3-point FG)
Boum is shooting a career-low in field goal percentage and 2-point field goal percentage, while his 3-point percentage is the second-lowest of his career. But there's still time for Boum to turn things around despite the sluggish start.
If you only read the box score, one would assume the All C-USA guard is having another great year. He's averaging 18.8 points per game (3rd in C-USA), 87% free throw percentage (3rd C-USA) and 2 3-pointers per game (15th C-USA).
The Oakland, Calif. native is no stranger to adversity like Bieniemy. He dealt with a broken finger on his non-shooting finger before the season started to cause him to miss a game. Due to COVID-19 protocols and a stomach bug, Boum missed three more contests. And, despite all of the adversity, Boum has scored in double figures 12 times in 13 games played.
He's coming off a 78-70 overtime win in which Boum scored 13 of his 28 points in overtime to seal the game. In the game, he hit 13-of-14 free throws, grabbed five rebounds, five assists and totaled a career-high six steals. Maybe the road win could help ignite more confidence in Boum moving forward.
"He's getting after it defensively," Golding said. "Where I'm so proud of him is his defense and how far he's come."
Will UTEP fix offensive woes in the future?
Short term, not sure.
Long term, this program will figure it out offensively.
UTEP's struggles offensively fall right in line with the absence of players like Kennedy. The Miners are currently 10th in C-USA for scoring offense (68.9 ppg), 13th in field goal percentage (.410), 13th in assists (11.7) and eighth in 3-point shooting (.339).
The Miners are at their best when they share the basketball, get to the charity stripe and hit 3-point shots. Easier said than done.The team is one of the worst in college basketball for their mid-range shooting percentage (43.9%, 327th in NCAA per KenPom) and effective field goal percentage (46.3%, 297th in NCAA per KenPom).
Drawing contact and getting to the free throw line might be their solution. UTEP is third in the league for free throw percentage (87.6%). They get almost 20% of their overall points per game from the free throw line.
Defense holds strong in C-USA play
Defensively, UTEP is among the best in the conference and, by some metrics, one of the feistiest across the country. The Miners are a top-100 team by KenPom in defensive adjusted efficiency (99.2, 99th). They are currently fourth among C-USA scoring defenses (65.29 points allowed), fourth in steals (8.06 per game) and second in turnover margin (+4.06).
They are also top-50 by KenPom in turnover percentage (21.8%; 46th) and non-steal turnover percentage (11.1%; 41st).
So when it comes to defense, this team has proven they can compete with any squad out there.
Don't sleep on: Ze'Rik Onyema
But really, how can you sleep on Ze'Rik Onyema. I said this on MinerTalk two weeks ago and I'll say it again, Onyema is the most loveable player on this team and for some reason, the Miner faithful always cheers a little louder when he throws down a thunderous dunk.
Onyema has played in eight of the 17 games for the Miners this year as an off-the-bench forward. He is a non-scholarship freshman that has given this team some juice in the frontcourt. He has totaled 14 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks and two steals in 59 minutes off the bench.
His parents Kingsley and Mary Onyema, along with his two brothers, lived in El Paso for a good portion of Ze'Rik's childhood. He finished high school in San Antonio (John Jay HS) and joined the UTEP basketball squad in the fall of 2020.