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Men’s basketball heads into final games of season with tournament seeding in mind

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After a very rough start, the UTEP men’s basketball team can still secure a first round bye in the C-USA tournament in Birmingham.

If someone were to say that the UTEP men’s basketball team is on the verge of clinching a first-round bye in the Conference-USA tournament at the beginning of February, no one would have believed them. The Miners lost 12 straight games and dropped the first three games in league play.

However, just over a month later, UTEP is one of the hottest teams in the nation and not many teams want to get in their way. The Miners have won nine out of their last 11 contests. Now at 11-15 and 9-5 in C-USA, the orange and blue are in a two-way tie for third place in their league with Old Dominion. The top four teams in C-USA earn a bye in the opening round of the tournament.

Head coach Tim Floyd, has seen his unit do a complete turnaround and has beaten some of the elite schools in C-USA in their run, such as handing Middle Tennessee (24-4, 14-1 C-USA) their only loss in league play, thrashing Marshall (15-11, 8-6 C-USA) for their first home loss in the conference and handling Rice’s dynamic duo of guards (18-9, 8-6 C-USA). 

With only four games remaining in the roller coaster of a season for the Miners, they have three schools (FAU, FIU, Charlotte) to face in the bottom half of the conference before the tournament starts on March 8. The two Sunshine State teams, along with the 49ers, have a combined record of 12-30 (a winning percentage of 40 percent).

The C-USA playoff format consists of the top-12 schools in the league receiving a bid to compete in the season-ending tournament, which means only two universities will be left watching from their couches. This year the playoffs will be held in Birmingham, Alabama.

No matter what, UTEP will be a part of the 12 best teams after their final four matchups. If worse comes to worst for the Miners, and they come up short in their final games, Floyd’s squad will still hold a higher record than the bottom two teams in the league, FIU (6-21, 2-12 C-USA) and North Texas (8-18, 2-12 C-USA).

UTEP is currently in the midst of their longest road trip of the season, but have continued their roll by winning the first two contests against Rice and UNT in overtime. This has lifted the Miners to 4-6 in away games this season.

The following two matches have the orange and blue scheduled against FAU and FIU, both in Florida. UTEP’s hot streak began against these two schools in El Paso, and the Miners will look to beat them on the road this time around. It was the first time since 1995 that the Miners competed in back-to-back overtime thrillers.

On Thursday night, the Miners will face a team they squeaked by, FAU, for the 66-65 win at the beginning of conference action.

FAU’s Gerdarius Troutman was a problem for UTEP in their first meeting, as he scored 22 points while draining all six of the Owl’s 3-point makes (6-28 as a team). Troutman almost spoiled a game that saw UTEP lead for the majority of the contest.

Nevertheless, it was UTEP’s starting guard Omega Harris who saved his squad from the potential comeback attempt from FAU. Harris had a team-high in both points (18) and assists with four. He was also responsible for hitting the jumper in overtime that gave UTEP the lead that never faded in the extra minutes of the ball game.

As for the second game of the week, FAU has lost three out of their last four games and it circles back to the team not possessing a go-to scorer on their roster. The Owl’s leading scorer Adonis Filer is only putting up 10.3 points per match. His scoring total has him outside of the top 30 scorers in C-USA, while the Miners have three athletes’ averaging above Filer. The orange and blue should have the advantage when it comes to finding the bottom of the net, at an easier rate.

The lone senior on UTEP’s roster, Dominic Artis, nailed a go-ahead bucket in the final seconds of double overtime to lift his team over the Golden Panthers, 88-87, earlier in the year.

In a game that saw many swings, it was FIU that ended regulation with a 21-7 run to force extra time in the team’s first matchup. Regardless, UTEP’s top three scorers, Harris (20 points), sophomore forward Paul Thomas (19 points) and Artis (18 points), combined points of 57 were just enough to edge FIU’s six players who scored in double-figures.

One of UTEP’s main weapons is their height and ability to crash the boards, as they grab the most defensive rebounds in the conference (29.5), compared to dead last from the Panthers’ defensive boards per game (22.2).

Both teams have two players averaging over 13 points per game, but the Miners defense excels far better than FIU’s defensive efforts have all season. UTEP allows the fourth-fewest points per game as a team, only giving up 68.5 a night, while the Panthers sit in the bottom four teams by giving up nearly 74 points per game.

FIU will likely be playing the spoiler role, hoping to drop UTEP further in the rankings, in what might be a trap game for Floyd’s unit.

UTEP will clash with their toughest game left on their schedule, Old Dominion (16-10, 9-5 C-USA) at the Don Haskins Center, on March 2.

ODU is no pushover on the road as they have a winning record of 6-4 in such games. The Monarchs have an old-fashioned defense wins type of mentality. Their offense is near the bottom of the league as they only average 63.4 points on the scoreboard, but ODU’s defense has them in reach of the first round bye, as well. In C-USA, the Monarchs allow the fewest points, with only 61.6 granted to their opponents a night.

The Monarch’s top threat is their sophomore guard Ahmad Caver. He leads his unit in points (13.3 ppg), assists (4.5 apg), steals (1.2 spg) and 3-point shooting percentage (.362). UTEP’s guards will have their work cut out for them.    

A couple of day later, UTEP will close out the regular season with the 49ers in El Paso. In Charlotte’s first 10 games, they have only come out on top in two of them.

Charlotte’s offense can go off on any given night, with Jon Davis leading the way with 19.7 points per contest. The 49ers have eclipsed the 100-point mark four times this season, more than any other C-USA school. As a team, it has put their lethal offense average on the year at 77.5.

Making free throws has been a constant struggle for UTEP (65 percent as a team), but Charlotte, takes advantage of almost every charity stripe attempt, connecting on a conference-high as a team (76 percent).

The orange and blue’s nine victories in the league have them a secured spot, but the question is where will they end up in the seeding. The finish line is weeks away, but UTEP is looking for their first NCAA tournament berth since the 2009-2010 season. With C-USA having the reputation of being a one NCAA tournament berth league, the league playoffs are usually the deciding factor.

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Men’s basketball heads into final games of season with tournament seeding in mind