When the Miners lost in the final game of their three-game road swing in five days to Middle Tennessee (77-59) on Monday night, Voice of the Miners Jon Teicher asked head coach Joe Golding simply, "If I were to tell you that the Miners would be 16-11 at this point, what would you say?" 

"I would say I want 20 or 22," said the first-year head coach.

The Miners are 16-11, 9-6 C-USA heading into their final three home games. They wrapped up their road schedule for the regular season with a winning record (7-6) for the first time since the 2013-14 season. The squad is coming off a sweep in the LA Tech/Southern Miss road trip—the first time the program has swept the two schools on the road in league play.

UTEP might not be a C-USA championship contender yet, but don't tell that to the current team. They believe they can compete with anyone across the league on the right night.

"I saw an extremely well-coached basketball team," said former UTEP coach Tim Floyd at halftime of the Southern Miss game on the broadcast. "I don't know if anybody in the country plays harder. This team has an identity. They are going to compete at the highest level... Is there a wrinkle that comes on a Saturday game? Sure, maybe they gave up a layup or two. But all I can tell you is that this is a model that's going to win and win at the highest levels UTEP can win at given the constraints in recruiting and what they have to go through."

Just over a year ago, UTEP men’s basketball fans were frustrated with the program’s inability to build a consistent winner in conference play. Fans were disgruntled at the choice of the athletic department to give previous coach Rodney Terry an extension through the 2024 season. The Miners finished the 2021 season with a .500 record (12-12), yet the program lacked an identity and fans were left disappointed.

Things look a lot different at the program one year later. There’s hope and optimism for a squad that was picked 10th in the conference in the preseason poll. There’s team chemistry in the locker room. Sure, they still have the C-USA Tournament to look forward to. Either way, Golding has delivered on the promise he made when first introduced at UTEP.

“I’m not building for 10 years from now,” Golding said back on April 14, when he was hired last year. “My job at UTEP is to win in year one.”

You might not find your 20-win-season or your NCAA Tournament in year one. But the Miners have proven they can play with the best teams across the league (North Texas, UAB & LA Tech). They are currently tied for fifth place with Western Kentucky in C-USA. 

Guard Souley Boum, who is currently leading C-USA in scoring (19.9 ppg), felt like the transition of Rodney Terry leaving the program to be an assistant coach at Texas and the Golding hire to follow was excellent timing.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Boum told Teicher in a halftime interview of the MTSU game. “I felt like it was just time. There was stuff that just wasn’t working out with the coaching staff and this team, players and stuff. I felt like it was the right time. I was just waiting back and seeing what was going to happen. I didn’t want to make any movements too quick. I wanted to see when the new coach was going to come in and look like and give it a chance. I feel like a great coach that’s perfect for this job came here. I feel like coach Golding is a perfect fit for this job and I like what he’s doing. We’re here now so I feel like we have a chance."

As a previous coach at UTEP—and other coaching stints in the NBA and college basketball—Floyd was extremely complimentary of Golding's squad. Floyd coached UTEP from 2010-18 and complied a 138–99 (.582) record, including two NIT appearances and one CBI berth.

 

The easiest argument against the success?

“Golding is winning with players that aren't his recruits.” 

I’ll dispel this one quickly. Golding made it known that he had to re-recruit a lot of the players at UTEP. While players like Bryson Williams, Efe Odigie and Kristian Sjolund departed for other schools, Golding kept the nucleus of Jamal Bieniemy, Souley Boum, Keonte Kennedy, Tydus Verhoeven and Christian Agnew on the team. Players like Verhoeven even entered the transfer portal initially before deciding to return to the school. Plus, Golding has been able to get the most out of players like Emmanuel White, Ze’Rik Onyema and Cam Clardy—all of whom didn’t see any playing time last year. 

Beyond just wins and losses, the team feels like they are gelling together at the right time.

"When we started this journey eight months ago at our first team dinner, it was so quiet, there were pockets and cliques... Now you fast forward eight months to last night's dinner, a lady that was cooking our dinner asked if she could say something to our team. She said she had never seen a team that close together as we were, talking, having that much fun, the joy, the laughter," Golding said. "That's the best compliment I can get. Take the wins and losses and put them away. That makes me proud because we've come a long way. These guys built relationships, they're having fun together, there's joy in that locker room. That's why you coach."

As they turn the page to the final stretch of the season, UTEP will host two of the best teams in C-USA. They will first host UAB (47th in KenPom) on Saturday, Feb. 26, before closing out the year against Rice and North Texas (40th in KenPom) next week.

There's a chance that the Miners could get back guard Keonte Kennedy, who has been out for all 15 games of C-USA thus far with a broken foot.

Through the adversity this team has faced this year, their top guards in Kennedy, Boum and Jamal Bieniemy have only played six games together this year.

“I didn’t know it was only six games," Boum said. "That’s crazy. It’s credit to the coaching staff. It’s credit to our teammates. We’ve bought into the coach’s system, playing really hard on defense. I feel like throughout everything we’ve been through this year, definitely achieved stuff that people probably didn’t think we would do.”

This team could make a run in the C-USA Tournament and surprise more people. Or, they could just as easily bounce out of the tournament, just like recent years for this program. Despite how they wrap up the year, Golding will be tasked with the following:

  1. Recruit
  2. Build a winner
  3. Bring fans back to the Haskins Center

Each of these assignments is tougher than the next. But for now, hope and optimism is restored to the men's basketball program.

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