UTEP men’s basketball: Five important notes

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Gaby Velasquez

The UTEP men’s basketball team has not had a losing season at home since the 2002-03 campaign when they finished 5-12.

Mikey Flores, Staff reporter

Since the new year began, UTEP has had hopes of turning their season around and clawing their way back to a top-four seed in Conference USA. The team hoped for a repeat of last year, where the Miners received a first-round bye in the conference tournament after a miraculous midseason turnaround.

Since 2018 started, UTEP has played in 12 games and has  only come out victorious in two of those contests. For context, UTEP’s only win in two months of play came against Florida international on Jan. 13 and their 3-12 record in their last 15 games .

In their last game this past Saturday, the Miners were torched 82-33 by Old Dominion on the road. The loss was the second-largest losing margin (49) in school history with the 33 offensive points being the lowest score by any UTEP team since the shot clock era began in 1985-86.

Now, UTEP (8-18, 3-11 C-USA) will tangle with La Tech on Thursday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. and then they will welcome in Southern Miss on Feb. 24 also at 7 p.m in hopes of trying to get something positive going.

Here are five things you need to know about UTEP and what to watch out for in their final homestand of the season:

1. UTEP is barely holding on to the 12th and final playoff spot in C-USA

In Conference USA, 12 of the 14 schools qualify for the conference tournament, and UTEP holds the tiebreaker with Rice for the last seed. Charlotte, with a 1-13 record, sits in the 14th spot and is the Miners’ only win in their last eight contests.

Receiving a conference tournament bid allows teams all around the nation to fight for the biggest goal in college basketball—a shot to make it to the NCAA tournament in March.

The Miners are in a seven-year drought when it comes to making the NCAA tournament. One loss from here on out could possibly eliminate UTEP from reaching the C-USA Tournament in Frisco, Texas, beginning March 7.

While UTEP has to deal with two quality C-USA teams in La Tech (16-12) and Southern Miss (13-15) this week, the Rice Owls have two very winnable games against Florida Atlantic (11-15) and Florida International (11-16).

UTEP’s upcoming opponents, La Tech and Southern Miss, have a combined record of 29-27, compared to the Florida schools’ combined record of 22-31.

The part that makes things even more interesting is that UTEP and Rice are set to meet up in Houston on March 1. As of now, both schools are within one game  for the last spot in the C-USA tournament, but that could either stay the same or change depending on this week’s games.

2. UTEP has not had a losing record at home since the 2002-03 season

UTEP is known for successfully defending their home court, the Don Haskins Center, no matter how bright or dull a season looks. But this year, the Miners have struggled more than usual in El Paso.

In the final home stand of the season,  the Miners will have  a lot more riding on it than the surface shows. UTEP is not only fighting for a playoff spot, but they are also fighting against their first losing season at home in nearly 15 years.

Coming into the final home matchups of the season, UTEP is 7-8 at home and are riding a three-game skid at the Don Haskins Center. And their final two home games of the 2017-18 year are no give-me-games.

In fact, both La Tech and Southern Miss have already beaten UTEP this season. Against the Golden Eagles, UTEP suffered a double-digit loss, 85-75, on Jan. 4, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Then, on Jan. 6,  defensively the Miners gave up a season-high 97 points against the Bulldogs in a loss.

3. The Miners need to improve on ball movement

Out of the 351 basketball schools in the nation, UTEP ranks 338 in assists per game. The Miners’ 10.7 assists per game has also brought them to dead last in C-USA in that category.

The trend for any successful basketball team is good ball movement and hitting the open shooters. The five worst teams record-wise in C-USA—Charlotte, Rice, UTEP, FIU and FAU—also hold the bottom-five spots in assists per game, while some of the conference’s best —UAB, Old Dominion and Marshall—are three of the top four spots in the passing category.

Since losing Dominic Artis, a seasoned guard who graduated last year, Miners have had trouble replacing what he brought to the program. Last season, Artis averaged a team-high in assists and was second in scoring.

This season, no one on the Miners is averaging two assists per game. Every team in C-USA has at least one player who averages two or more assists, except UTEP.

UTEP has leaned on two freshmen, Magee and Evan Gilyard, to control their offense and  ball handling, and so far it has been apparent all season that ball movement is a much-needed improvement for them along with the rest of the squad.

4. The second-half woes for the Miners need to come to an end

When UTEP is defending near their bench in the first half of games, they play solid defense. But when it’s time to switch sides and they have to defend away from interim head coach Phil Johnson and the rest of his crew, the Miners fall apart defensively.

This season, UTEP has given up more than 144 points from the first half compared to the second half of play. In the first half, UTEP’s defense has given up 862 total points, but has given up 1006 points in the final half.

UTEP has gained first-half leads over teams like Western Kentucky, UTSA, FIU and North Texas this season, but they resulted in losses.

“Another second-half problem tonight,” Johnson said after a routine second-half meltdown against WKU on Feb. 1. “At halftime, I thought we were going to win, but we went back to being reckless.”

5. UTEP needs consistency on the scoring end

One could argue that UTEP’s biggest problem this year is on the offensive side of the ball. While on the defensive end, they are allowing 71.8 points per game.

However, on offense, UTEP is only averaging more points than Rice this season. Putting up 67 points per game is only part of the bigger problem for the Miners.

Last year, Harris was putting up over 17 points per game and his reliable scoring landed him a spot on C-USA’s All second  team. But this year, Harris’ shooting hasn’t found the rhythm he had last season. Harris and Keith Frazier are still leading UTEP, averaging 11 points per game, but that’s not cutting it. In C-USA, Harris and Frazier are not even in the top-30 in scoring averages per contest.

  Follow Mike Flores on Twitter @mikey__flores