UTEP Struggles Without Point Guard Jamal Bieniemy
On the surface, UTEP's 84-65 win over Sul Ross State last night at the Don Haskins Center was a 19-point win against a Division 3 opponent. However, the Miners struggled with the Lobos before pulling away late in the second half. There were 16 lead changes in the game before UTEP took control behind 60 points combined from Souley Boum and Bryson Williams. My two biggest takeaways from the contest are the five day layoff from COVID and the value of point guard Jamal Bieniemy.
It was clear early on that the Miners were not the same team they were earlier this season. Much of that could be attributed to the five days that the team took off after a player had tested positive for COVID. Based on protocols from the NCAA, the Miners were forced to shut down operations for five days and no player could work out on campus. A layoff of nearly a week can hurt from a conditioning standpoint, and UTEP looked like a team that spent most of the week at home during the first half against Sul Ross State. It is also a good indication that the team cannot afford any more positive tests during conference play because the five day quarantine period could be too much to overcome when they return to the court for back-to-back games.
As for Bieniemy, the transfer from Oklahoma was not available for the Sul Ross game. The Miners had to cancel last Sunday's road game in Tucson against the Arizona Wildcats because a player on the team had tested positive for the coronavirus. The good news is that the junior is expected to be back in time for UTEP's road game against Saint Mary's. As Adrian alluded to in his recap, UTEP head coach Rodney Terry expects a little rust from his starting point guard when he rejoins the team.
Of all the offseason moves, Bieniemy was considered the most important. The Miners lacked a true point guard over the last two seasons and their performance against Sul Ross State looked more like the 2019-20 version of the club that finished with eight wins. UTEP relied heavily on Boum and Williams to provide the offense, but to Souley's credit, he did a terrific job of assuming the point guard role for team. He dished out 11 assists and 4 steals to go along with his 34 points and 5 rebounds, while only turning the ball over twice in nearly 39 minutes of playing time. Boum played a little point guard last season, but his role for the Miners should be a scoring 2-guard.
In UTEP's first win of the season against UT Permian Basin, the Miners scoring was evenly distributed among six players who finished in double figures. Unlike Sul Ross, the UTPB game was never in doubt from the opening tip. The Lobos had lost by 16-points to East Texas Baptist earlier this season and UTSA beat them by 29 points on Friday night. However, Sul Ross scratched and clawed against UTEP, and this was just a two-point game with eight minutes left to play before the Miners were able to pull away behind the scoring of their two best players.
Saint Mary's will be a great test and measuring stick for the Miners early in the 2020-21 season. The Gaels are 4-1, with their only loss coming to Memphis on November 25th in the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic. They did beat Northern Iowa and South Dakota State in that tournament and also defeated Nicholls State and Texas Southern at home. St. Mary's is always one of the best teams in the West Coast Conference and it will be the first road game for the Miners. The good news is that UTEP will be back at full strength with Jamal Bieniemy returning to the lineup.