UTEP Basketball’s Quest for Recognition and Relevance Starts Now
If I asked UTEP men's basketball head coach Rodney Terry if this next stretch of games would be a chance for the Miners to get on a bit of a winning streak, he would probably say his team isn't worried about that kind of stuff.
They shouldn't be.
Coach Terry's philosophy for the young Miners squad is to get better day-by-day. You hear it in his continuing coaching ideologies about how his team "can't get too high or can't get too low" and how they will strive to compete "at a very high level."
They have competed at a high level, and they've done it ever since their 79-46 loss to Arizona in November.
So no, the team itself shouldn't worry about going on winning streaks or what the future holds on them. But for the sake of conversation, let's break down this next stretch of their schedule and see what it could mean for the Miners.
December non-conference finish
UTEP (3-5) will be at home for the remainder of their final three games of non-conference play. They've duked it out with the likes of New Mexico (84-78), NMSU (62-58), and Marquette (76-69) through their last four games, which they lost in single-digits in each of the games.
They will host UC Riverside on Sunday, Dec. 16, and then compete against Norfolk State and Wyoming/East Tennessee State in the WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational (Dec. 21-22).
This stretch, however winnable it may seem off the page, will be no cake walk for the Miners. UC Riverside (3-7) will be a good test for UTEP to see how they can fare against another young program. Norfolk State (4-7) and either Wyoming (3-7) or East Tennessee State (8-3) will not be easy out's in the Sun Bowl Invitational, as each team will enter the tournament with a tough non-conference schedule as well.
For the Invitational itself, UTEP hasn't won the tournament in their own backyard since 2014, seeing programs like UC Irvine (2015), Akron (2016) and North Dakota State (2017) take home the title in the past three years. Winning the Sun Bowl Invitational would bode extremely well for a first-year regime under Terry.
This is what the Miners prepared for when they scheduled challenging opponents in the first half of their schedule. They wanted to be battle-tested before facing off against these upcoming opponents.
If they were to storm through the month of December and win out their games before C-USA play, the Miners would stand at 6-5 overall and would be riding a lot of momentum into the month of January.
That's the best case scenario.
On the flip side of things, the Miners could very easily struggle in the last stretch. They've been able to limit turnovers through their last four games, after being among the nation's worst, but if they fall back to their earlier ways of turning the ball over, it could be a tough three-game stretch.
We will know a lot about the Miners after these next three games.
January, C-USA & 2019 is just around the corner
To back-track on why coach Terry and his team shouldn't care about a win streak, Terry would have--and already has--said that his team "can control what [we] can control for 40 minutes."
It's a game-by-game approach and for Terry, a win isn't as important as steady improvement is from his group.
If UTEP rides a three-game win streak to close out 2018, it might not be a big deal for this team as they enter their league schedule. And that's fine too. Terry said it the minute he stepped onto campus, "we're going to have a very high standard and that's something as I left Fresno State that I was very proud of."
And a "high standard" is what this coaching staff is building. Terry wants to continue with a team that balances itself out where they, again, "can't get too high or can't get too low."
UTEP's January schedule goes as follows: back-to-back home-and-home's with UTSA (Jan. 3, Jan. 5), hosting North Texas (Jan. 10) and Rice (Jan. 12), on the road against UAB (Jan. 17) and Middle Tennessee (Jan. 19), at home versus Old Dominion (Jan. 24) and Charlotte (Jan. 26) and concluding the month with a road trip to Marshall (Jan. 31).
As it stands right now, there aren't any incredible teams in the conference. All teams are in the middle of the pack when it comes to significant wins and losses. Take North Texas (10-1), for instance, whose best win comes against either UT-Arlington (63-61) or Portland (78-73), which are both not incredible wins. Even Western Kentucky (5-4), who has wins over West Virginia (63-57) and Arkansas (78-77), has blemishes on their record, including losses to Indiana State (63-54) and Missouri State (84-78).
This league schedule will be competitive, and when January rolls around, UTEP will be among the more competitive teams in the conference if they continue to play the way they have been.
None of this stuff over the horizon matters to the team or the fans right now. Today, the Miners are preparing for UC Riverside, with their last thought being how they can do against C-USA opponents.
But keep an eye out. If this team enters the North Texas game on a five-game win streak while keeping a consistent rhythm of play, I wouldn't be surprised.