UTEP Men’s Basketball Yet to Turn The Corner
After just six games of conference play, one thing is certain about the UTEP men's basketball program. They are still an inconsistent bunch that keeps fans guessing as to which team will show up each night. We have seen the great version of the Miners, evidenced by their second half against Arizona State and their second game against Southern Miss. On the flip side, we have seen this group score just 33 points in 40 minutes of basketball against North Texas, a horrible performance that was unwatchable. In between, we have watched UTEP compete with teams like Arizona and all of their conference opponents on any given night. However, they have come up short in the final minutes against the Wildcats, and C-USA losses to Rice, Southern Miss, and North Texas.
Thus far, UTEP is 6-6 overall and 2-4 in conference play. On paper, this team is full of talent and ability, especially with the newcomers. When you watch point guard Jamal Bieniemy play, it is obvious that he is an enormous upgrade over Jordan Lathan and Nigel Hawkins. He can handle and protect the basketball, while adding a dimension of scoring that was not on display at Oklahoma. Fellow guard Christian Agnew is a hustle machine who gets every ounce of production out of his 6-2 frame. He plays excellent defense and even though his offensive game is sometimes a little out of control, he adds a dimension to the team that was missing before his arrival. Keonte Kennedy is fourth on the team in scoring (8.3ppg), and he is at his best in the transition game when he attacks the rim. However, he has struggled shooting the basketball, especially from beyond the arc (27%) and at the free throw line (44%) . Kristian Sjolund has played the least of the three, but he has the nicest looking shot on the team. Sjolund also has the ability to hit the three and his 6-9 size and long reach makes it easy for him to shoot over his opponent.
Despite all the positives that these new additions bring to the team, head coach Rodney Terry has not been able to get consistent results from the Miners. This is especially evident in C-USA play, where UTEP has not been able to put together two great performances over back-to-back games. Instead, it has been a mixed bag every time they take the floor. Take for example the series with Rice. Friday night, the Miners scored 101 points and they look unstoppable offensively. The next game they will tally just 68 points and struggle offensively all night long against the Owls.
If you describe the problems affecting UTEP, it is a list of issues that would make Dr. Phil shudder. Defensively, they are still struggling to defend the pick and roll as well as properly fighting through on-ball screens to prevent back door opportunities. They also allow guards to drive uncontested to the rim and they seem to have late lapses on possessions which has led to easy baskets. Coach Terry said a few weeks ago on the postgame radio show against Rice that he thought his veterans had figured out how to adjust to these offensive sets by now, and he worked on them again prior to the series with North Texas. In C-USA, their opponents will continue to exploit the Miners' defensive lapses until they are able to correct their issues in-game.
On the offensive side, they are out of sync at key times in ballgames and they force bad shots hoping to draw a foul and get to the free-throw line. Junior Souley Boum is leading the team in scoring at 16.1 points per game. He is also shooting just 36% from the field, which is in-line with his career averages. Boum also has a tendency to force many shots in the paint on drives to the basket he hopes will draw a foul call, but instead he does not get the whistle and the Miners get an empty offensive possession. On the bright side, his three point shooting is way up to 43% this season (28.6% last season), but UTEP does not have any set plays to free him up to shoot the 3. Considering Boum is so dangerous from downtown, the Miners should find a way to get him more open looks to capitalize on his hot shooting from beyond the arc.
Bryson Williams came into this season as a leading candidate for C-USA Player of the Year. Instead, his inconsistent play has been a microcosm of UTEP's season. His scoring average is down three points per game, and he often faces double teams whenever he gets the ball. His shooting percentage is down to 46.5%, the lowest of his college career, and at times he disappears from the ballgame. When Williams was dialed in against Rice and Arizona State, the Miners are at their best. This UTEP team has more scoring options than at any time since Rodney Terry arrived in El Paso, but their inconsistency on offense has hurt Williams' game.
All of these issues are correctable and there is plenty of time in conference play to see UTEP play the kind of consistent basketball that fans hoped for. However, the Bulldogs are hot coming into this weekend's series in El Paso, having won seven of their last nine games. They also traditionally give the Miners trouble. After that, they play their only home and home series in league play against a UTSA team that has also been extremely disappointing. The opportunity is there for Coach Terry's team. Can they turn the corner on their season?
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