UTEP men’s basketball: The shine is already fading

UTEP+Head+Coach+Rodney+Terry+voices+his+displeasure+versus+New+Mexico+State++as+UTEP+President+Heather+Wilson+and+former+El+Paso+congressman+Beto+O%27+Rourke+look+on+from+third+row++Dec.+3%2C+2019.

Michael Cuviello

UTEP Head Coach Rodney Terry voices his displeasure versus New Mexico State as UTEP President Heather Wilson and former El Paso congressman Beto O' Rourke look on from third row Dec. 3, 2019.

Michael Cuviello, Sports Editor

Finishing up the 2018-2019 season, UTEP Miner fans were convinced that the eight-win campaign was a time of development and growing for the team. With seven players sitting out the season due to transferring or grades, the addition of these players to the young core that played out the season would pay off in the long run.  

Head Coach Rodney Terry brought one of his better players from his former school Fresno State in junior Bryson Williams who was a 14point scorer as a sophomore for his former team. He also brought in former Fresno player Eric Vila, a 6’11 forward, already on his third college with stops at Texas A& M and Northwest Community College prior to UTEP.  

Having recruited in the Fresno area, Terry was able to pouch athletic guard Deon Stroud from his former university and convince graduate transfer senior Darryl Edwards to become a part of his team. Both players played high school locally in Fresno. Sophomore Efe Odigie who was named to the Conference-USA (C-USA) All-Freshman team also was originally supposed to play for Terry at Fresno State before he left the program. Tydus Verhoeven’s father had played at Fresno State and was considering the university before Terry took the UTEP job. 

During the season the Miners added one of the biggest prospects the Miners have lured to El Paso in recent memory in 6-6 swingman Kaden Archie. Archie was a top 100 recruit in the nation and had offers from 17 schools, including the universities of Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma State. Texas Christian University was the surprise choice of Archie with which he only stayed for 10 games before transferring. 

Two significant contributors for the program last season decided to transfer on March 12 of that year. Sophomore guards Evan Gilyard, the leading scorer for the team and Koby Magee a top reserve both announced their intentions to leave. 

About a week later, March 20assistant head coach Lamont Smith resigned from the program after being caught up in a recruiting scandal at the University of San DiegoSmith was accused of helping a player secure admittance to San Diego in exchange for cash. A few days later another assistant coach, Brian Burton, was fired in an unrelated matter that was never disclosed. 

Following these events, the Miners ended up losing their only two high school commitments, guards Brenden Wenzel and Jessie Zarzuela. Wenzel was a recruit of Burton and the reasons for the decommits were logical given all the transfers already waiting in the wings. Wenzel signed with Utah and Zarzuela signed with a junior college.  

Over the summer the team added sophomore Xavier transfer guard Keonte Kennedy. Kennedy is 6-5 and from Austin, Texas. In August, the team added Edwards from Louisiana State. 

At the beginning of the season, the Miners were considered one of the top teams in conference. All of the transfers had a full season to develop a rapport with coaches and teammates. Fans were understandably excited especially with all the disappointment of the Tim Floyd era at UTEP.  Last year’s top player Odigie even showed up noticeably trimmer, shedding at least 30 pounds. 

The team began the season playing a charity gamne against national championship runner up Texas Tech. UTEP won the game 70-60 and Edwards displayed his tremendous scoring ability with 24 points.  Even though it was an exhibition game, expectations were raised with this victory. Overall, the team was considered very deep in talent and a contender in conference, maybe even a sleeper team for NCAA tournament. 

Archie was declared eligible to play earlier than expected in November and the Miners went on to win the West Star Classic and started 8-1. This was the high point of the year for the Miners. When things were going well there was a level of teamwork and dedication that would not be seen the rest of the season. 

Two days later the Miners would change the trajectory of its season. Playing on the road at Houston the Miners were dominated, losing by 20 points. Three days after that, the Miners arrived for the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii and lost its opener to the host team. Finishing 1-2 in the tournament, the Miners finished among the bottom teams of the classic. 

Less than a week after the poor showing, two players announced their intention to transfer. First Hawkins, then Lathon announced they were entering the transfer portal. Lathon, a starter, cited family issues and Hawkins gave no reason although his playing time had decreased from the previous season. 

Lathon left the team for about a week and Hawkins immediately rejoined the team after his departure. Rejoining the team with no comment, Lathon was then relegated to a bench role while Hawkins started. With a bench role, Lathon’s erratic shooting went zero for the month of January with no field goals made. 

To make matters worse, Terry became critically ill during a pregame meal on Jan. 3 before a game at Florida International. 

The lineup and rotation were in a serious state of flux for the Miners all season. Edwards, Williams and Boum were the only constants in the lineup. Outside of those players the rest of the team took turns being in the doghouse or just not getting any playing time for various reasons. By the end of the season Terry had whittled the rotation down to seven players with big men Vila and Odigie firmly entrenched on the bench. Verhoeven, Archie and Stroud became key players down the stretch as the rotation shrank.  

For the season, the Miners finished nine games better than the previous season at 17-15. The team feasted on the bottom four teams in conference going 6-1 against the cellar dwellers. Unfortunately, the team went 2-9 versus the rest of the conference and were mercifully bounced from the C-USA tournament in the opening round by Marshall to end a oncepromising season. 

Since that time the Miners have now had four players announce they are entering the transfer portal and there could be more turnover. Lathon and Hawkins enter the portal for the second time in less than six months and neither is expected to change their mind again.  

Joining these players soon after was senior to be forward Anthony Tarke who, after receiving much praise in the off season, only received minimal playing time. Tarke, a physical specimen at 6-6, 220 failed to ever develop into any role with the team due to many factors including some injury related. 

Most surprising of all the transfer announcements was freshman Deon Stroud who had sat out a season due to academics. For most of the season Stroud had struggled to earn playing time but down the stretch became an essential part of the rotation. Stroud gained quite a fan following for his thunderous dunk Jan. 9, versus Southern Miss. Stroud has already announced his attention to play for Fresno State University in the fall. 

“You have to adapt and adjust,” Terry said in a news conference“Roster management, you’re continually working on that. This is everybody, not just us. … Kids transfer no matter what. Teams that win 25 games have four, five, six transfer.” This has been the only comment from Terry about players transferring this offseason. 

Uncertainty is now prevalent for the Miners lineup next season. Replacing these transfers will now be a more intricate situation with most of the country shut down due to Covid-19. The starting five of the Miners should still be strong with Williams and Boum as the main scorers. Archie and Verhoeven established themselves as defensive presences but are lacking in any real offense at this point. Backtoback 11-point games in Hawaii seem to be an aberration for Archie as his offense completely disappeared down the stretch.  

The final starting spot may come down to Odigie or Vila, but Terry has expressed disappointment all season with his point-guard play. Both players could potentially not be here next season depending on what happens with the team. Odds are the point guard that team has been missing is not on the team currently.  Kennedy is the only other player on the roster that logically could get major playing time next season. 

At most seven players on this roster are viable players for the Miners next season, quite a departure from the supposed deep team UTEP had this season. It would seem the depth was overrated or was not utilized properly. 

Terry finds himself in a familiar situation to his first season at UTEP minus players he had recruited while at Fresno State. No players have come out and publicly criticized the coach when announcing their departure but regardless the team has had issues internally. 

With football being a perennial bottom dweller, Terry has less pressure from the fan base but this season’s letdown has drawn criticism from many. Terry was considered a top-level hire from a solid program and now he will get a chance to prove he can actually build a program at UTEP. Patience will now be the word of the day as Terry must prove his worth as a recruiter and coach. 

Michael Cuviello may be reached at [email protected]