UTEP basketball set to tip-off season with big changes on board.


courtesy of UTEP

UTEP guard Souley Boum stretches a shot to the rim versus Southern Mississippi, Jan. 9.

Michael Cuviello, Sports Editor

Coming off a disappointing 17-15 season, Coach Rodney Terry and the UTEP Miner basketball team have retooled and are chomping at the bit to start the 2020 basketball season. Most basketball outlets have UTEP as a mid-tier team in the conference for the coming season but this is a talented team nonetheless. 

Starting the offseason on a high note the Miners beat the championship runner-up Texas Tech in a charity game 70-60, showing that the team had the ability to play with the top teams in the nation. Starting out 5-0 UTEP beat I -10 rival New Mexico State and New Mexico to start the season. 

A road rematch to New Mexico State was the first defeat for the Miners as UTEP would go on to win its next three games including the WESTAR Classic at the Don Haskins. Unfortunately, the Miners would struggle as the team left the friendly confines of El Paso losing five of its next six games. 

UTEP would end up going 17-15 and struggling in conference as the Miners got bounced in the first round of the C-USA tournament. Not one UTEP player was named all-conference although current senior Bryson Williams averaged 17 points and seven rebounds and established himself as one of the best in conference. 

Gone from the team are Jordan Lathon, Kaden Archie, Nigel Hawkins, Anthony Tarke and Deon Stroud. All players but Tarke were contributors during the season. Last season was plagued by internal strife with Lathon leaving the team just before the start of the new year then later returning. The top graduating player was Darryl Edwards who averaged 12.5 points a game. 

Chemistry which was supposed to be a strong point for the team, never produced a winning result and was clearly not at the level many predicted it would be. The team is hoping that the newcomers are a better fit for Terry’s style of play. 

Among the returning players Williams will be the key to how good the Miners will be this season. Williams is a preseason all-conference choice who has a top level inside outside game. For the players returning Williams has the best three-point percentage with 35.6% and is a 50% shot from the field. Williams is a solid defender whose biggest weakness is his tendency to get in foul trouble which plagued him last season. The offense flows through Williams and the Miners are different team without him on the floor. 

Junior Souley Boum emerged as a playmaker last season with his drives and outside shooting. Physically Boum was able to play long stretches of minutes without fouling out. Down the stretch Boum played the entire game four times and averaged over 32 minutes a game over the last nine games of the season. Boum averaged 12.9 points a game but his shooting was erratic at only 36% from the field and under 30% from the three-point line. He is a strong free throw shooter and a high energy player. One key factor that will help him this season is that UTEP has added a true point guard. 

Junior Efe Odigie will return as the fourth leading scorer from last season with only six points a game and four rebounds a game. He only played half as many minutes as he did as a freshman and his scoring and rebounding were about half of what he contributed as a freshman. Odigie is a talented big man that did not seem to have a role last season and was very inconsistent on the floor. 

After starting 12 games last season junior Tydus Verhoeven has been getting rave reviews for his offseason work to make himself better and likely has entrenched himself as one of the five starters. 

Verhoeven is strong around the basket and a stout defender. His height and frame are a force inside the paint but he showed no range last season on his shot. Verhoeven struggled at the line shooting 40%. Terry has remarked that he has worked on his offense tirelessly in the offseason and noted him as one of the pleasant surprises of camp. 

The last returning player that logged minutes last season is the much-maligned senior Eric Vila. At the beginning of the season Vila was a starter but moved in and out of the doghouse as the season progressed. Vila is 6’11” with a versatile set of skills but his defense and shot were major weaknesses last season. Vila shot 28% from the field and 21% on three pointers. 

To fill out the roster with the five losses to the transfer portal , Terry brought in multiple transfers to offset the depleted roster. 

 At the top of the list for transfers for UTEP is former Oklahoma a point guard Jamal Bieniemy who at 6’5” brings a physical presence and natural playmaking ability that was missing from the team last season. Bienemy was a starter for a good Oklahoma team that struggled with his shot at 34% shooting and only 25% from the three-point line.  Bienemy will be counted on for his leadership and experience this season for the Miners. 

“Being somebody who has played in big games at Oklahoma, some of the guys on our team will be looking for leadership,” Bieniemy said in a UTEP media release. “I want to be that person to show that leadership. I’m going to be somebody who is there every day and someone my teammates can count on. Whether I’m having a bad day or good day, my teammates can count on me to be a leader and help win games.” 

UTEP again went to a Power Five conference for gain another transfer in sophomore Kristian Sjolund who was also a teammate of Bienemy at Tompkins high school. Sjolund a forward from Georgia Tech got caught in a roster crunch at the Atlantic coast Conference School. After playing in 21 games as a freshman Sjolund did not play a game in the last season for Georgia Tech.  Sjoland only played about nine minutes a game but showed soldi three-point range with 33%. Improving his body composition from his freshman season may pay dividends for the Miners but his defense and rebounding are suspect at this point. 

“They want me to be a versatile player, being able to shoot from the three-point line, and obviously being able to spread the floor,” Sjolund explained. “I can come off a screen, and I’ll provide more options for the team to drive and kick, as well as other situations where it’s a challenge for the opponents to guard.”   

The Miners once again went to the Tompkins High well brining in a third teammate in Coastal Bend College’s Emmanuel White a sophomore guard that stands 6’5.” He averaged 13 points a game while shooting 35% from the floor while showing a good three-point shot. 

For outside shooting the Miners brought in sophomore Adam Hess a 6’5” shooting guard that shot 43% from the arch. For the season Hess averaged 7.5 points a game and 43% from the field. UTEP was near the bottom in three-point shooting in conference last season and the lack of efficiency cost the team in many close games. 

No matter what the talent level is with the team, I can play with anybody because I fit in,” Hess said. “My role, I can do whatever you ask me to do. I think we have a lot of talent and I think with me being able to shoot like I can, I’ll be able to spread the floor and create space for a lot of the other guys. I think I’ll be able to compliment what we have.”  

UTEP also returns last season’s Xavier University transfer guard Keonte Kennedy who played 12 minutes per game at Xavier while averaging two points a game. Kennedy has been talked up as a player that could contribute greatly this season and has a year in the UTEP system. 

“Redshirting is beneficial, especially if you use it the right way,” Kennedy said. “I spent a lot of time in the weight room to get bigger and stronger. I had a full year to learn the playbook, and adjusting to a whole new system. Sitting out is a good thing if you take the right steps like watching a lot of film. It helps if you want to be great.” 

International 6’4” Serbian point guard prospect Vuk Vulikic brings in tons of experience in Europe. Vulikic was a member of the youth Serbian National Basketball team as well. Vulikić won a gold medal at the 2017 FIBA Under 18 championship averaging 6 points 3 rebounds and five assists per game in tournament. UTEP was able to beat out some Power Five teams for Vulikic. 

Still awaiting word on North Alabama transfer guard Christian Agnew’s eligibility for the season that is a few days away, so its unlikely he starts the season being able to play. 

Compared to last season UTEP has less overall talent but the pieces in place may be a better fit for a winning team. Terry’s offense involves a lot of outside shooting and outside of Edwards nobody that has departed from the team had that skillset.  

If the new players buy into Terry’s system UTEP could be a dangerous team in conference this season. I do not think they are ready to challenge for a conference championship but the Miners have the ability to be in the top four of the conference if all pieces fall into place. 

UTEP opens the season at home 5 p.m. Wednesday Nov. 25. at the Don Haskins Center against the University of Texas at Permian Basin. No fans will be in attendance for the game. 

Michael Cuviello may be reached at [email protected]