UTEP Hoops Longs for Consistency in Conference Play
One of the consistent issues for the UTEP men's basketball program in the past decade has been their inconsistent play in Conference USA.
UTEP last won C-USA in 2010, when they were regular seasons champions under coach Tony Barbee. The year after, they were runners-up in the C-USA Tournament. Since they posted their 15-1 league record during the 2009-10 campaign, no UTEP men's team has been able to win the league like Barbee's bunch did.
Enter third-year head coach Rodney Terry, who wants to build the program into a contender.
The first two seasons under this current staff have been tough in league play. The 2018-19 season is basically a write-off since there were a plethora of players sitting out due to the NCAA Transfer rules. UTEP went 3-15 and were dead last in C-USA during Terry's first season. They improved to a ninth-place finish in 2019-20, going 8-10 in league play, as the team saw individuals like Bryson Williams and Souley Boum take the reigns of the program.
Still, UTEP hasn't won 10 or more games in C-USA play since the 2016-17 squad under Tim Floyd went 12-6 in the league and finished tied for third place.
After their first set of C-USA games to start off the 2020-21 season, UTEP gave fans two entirely different performances, leaving everyone puzzled on the true identity of this team.
First, the Miners saw a frustrating game slip between their fingers in the final minutes. UTEP fumbled a seven-point lead (60-53) in the final minute of regulation. They turned the ball over six times in the final stretch. Friday's contest saw Southern Miss outscore UTEP 21-6 over the final 5:46, including overtime, to win 74-66. UTEP shot poorly (36% FG, 22% 3-point FG, 58% FT) and had 11 turnovers throughout the game. The loss felt inexcusable.
Fortunately for UTEP, it felt like a completely different Miner team suited out on Saturday. They went toe-to-toe in the first half with Southern Miss, holding onto a 30-29 halftime lead. UTEP broke loose in the second half, dominating the Golden Eagles with a lead by as much as 20 points. They shot a whole lot better (51% FG, 46% 3PT FG, 77%FT), forced 18 turnovers and had just three turnovers of their own in the entire game. They played near perfect basketball to split the series.
So the question becomes, how does UTEP get consistent play from their team in conference play?
Coach Terry provided some interesting insight following the two games over the weekend.
Following the frustrating overtime loss, he said "[Southern Miss] changed the momentum of the game and out-hustled us on some 50-50 balls in the first half and we needed to come back and master our energy and activity in those regards. I thought we did that for the better part in the second half and got the game in our terms in what we wanted to do. We were right in position to win the ball game. We're so close right there in terms of understanding what it takes to win and close out games. We should've closed the game out at the free throw line, taking care of the basketball and we didn't. It was a tough game for us and we have to finish those games out, especially on the road."
And when the Miners rebounded with a strong win on Saturday, here's what he said: "We knew we were going to play a team who was confident, after we gave them a win the night before. We had to come in today and take this win. And my guys took this win... We made a few adjustments on their sets they did the night before and I thought our post guys did a really good job."
In order to find some success, they will need to obviously replicate what they did on Saturday across the board in C-USA play. Again, UTEP needs to find consistency in C-USA play, both at home and on the road. In 2019-20, they went 3-6 on the road, compared to 5-4 at home in conference play. Back in 2018-19, the Miners were winless in conference on the road (0-9), compared to going 3-6 at home.
Granted, maybe this team just simply hasn't played enough games to find a true identity thus far. UTEP is barely eight games into their season, having played just three other quality programs besides conference play, including Saint Mary's, Arizona and Arizona State.
But the weapons are there.
Bryson Williams is a First Team All Conference player. Souley Boum is one of the league's top scorers right now at 19.4 ppg. Jamal Bieniemy is the team's best true point guard since Dominic Artis. Tydus Verhoeven, Kristian Sjolund and Keonte Kennedy each have a chance to be significant contributors to this team. The addition of Christian Agnew has already proved to be a major boost.
If they utilize the talent properly; if they can become consistent; and, if they can establish their true identity, maybe UTEP becomes a contender in C-USA. If they fail in any of those categories, fans might have to suffer through another season of mediocrity through conference play.