UTEP basketball: An overrated history?


Michael Cuviello

UTEP forward Bryson Williams slams home a dunk versus New Mexico State Nov. 12, 2019.

Michael Cuviello, Sports Editor

As the final four winds down to Baylor versus Gonzaga for the NCAA national championship, fans of UTEP continue their annual prayer vigil for another Texas team not to repeat this feat. UTEP fans are automatically Gonzaga fans as they feel another Texas team winning has the potential to diminish UTEP and Don Haskins’ accomplishments.

This accomplishment from over 50 years ago has been UTEP’s one defining achievement as a basketball program. There is no debate the 64-67 teams for the Miners were among the country’s top teams, winning the 1966 Champion and reaching the sweet sixteen the other two seasons. There is also no question of the impact of integration the championship team had on college basketball as the first team to start five black players in a game.

The pre-1970 Miners known as Texas Western won a total of nine NCAA tournament games while losing only three games. No matter what happens, the championship team of 1966 will forever be enshrined in half of fame history.

In the 51 years since the decade of the seventies began, the Miners Have only won five NCAA tournament games in that time, losing 13 games.

During the seventies, the Miners reached the tournament twice and lost both times in the first round by double digits in the original round of 32 teams.

In the eighties, the Miners had a resurgence in 1984 with a 27-4 record and a WAC championship that propelled UTEP back into the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 1975 season as number four seed. In the second round’s opening game, the Miners lost to the number five seed UNLV Running Rebels 73-60.

In 1985 the Miners were upset in the WAC tournament but made the tournament as an 11th seed. In the first round, the Miners upset number six seed Tulsa for its first tournament win since 1967. The Miners could advance no further as UTEP lost to North Carolina State in the second round.

The next season, the Miners were eliminated in the first round. UTEP earned another bid to the NCAA tournament in 1987 as a seventh seed, winning its second tournament game since 1970 over Arizona. In the second round, the Miners ran into an ultra-talented Iowa team that was loaded with four future NBA players and, after leading at the half, ended up losing 82-80.

After making the tournament once again the following year and being bounced in its first game, the Miners returned to the tournament in 1989 as a seventh seed. In the opening round, the Miners overcame NCAA freshman of the year, Mahomed Abdul Rouf and his 33 total points. UTEP ran out of gas versus perennial Big 10 power Indiana in a 92-69 blowout loss in the next round.

1990 saw the Miners go to a team-record eighth straight NCAA tournament with an overtime exit to Minnesota 64-61.

After missing the tournament, the previous year with a 16-13 record, the Miners returned to the 1992 tournament as a ninth seed. This season would be the last truly relevant season for UTEP basketball history as the team would win two games in a tournament for the first time since the sixties.

1991 was a pivotal season not because of any notable achievement on the court but because the NCAA placed UTEP on probation for recruiting violations that limited scholarships for the next three seasons but did allow post-season play.

The Marlon Maxey led Miners upset number eight seed Evansville University team in a hard-fought 55-50 opening-round matchup. In the second round, UTEP pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history with a 66-60 win over the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks. In the sixteenth round, the Miners faced tournament upstart Cincinnati led by future Laker Nick Van Excel and lost an exciting 69-67 game to the final four bound team.

It has been 29 years since UTEP last won an NCAA tournament game in one of its most exciting seasons and tournament run of all time. Since, the Miners made the tournament three more times and lost in the first round each of those times. Overall, the Miners have a 14-16 tournament record but only five of those wins have happened in the last fifty seasons.

While UTEP had a hall of fame coach in Don Haskins with his 719 victories and multiple conference championships, overall, since the seventies, UTEP no longer enjoyed its brief status as a college basketball national power that it once was.

In the last 30 seasons, the Miners have only made the national tournament five times and have currently gone 11 straight seasons without a single bid and 29 years since a win. The last truly great UTEP basketball player last played in 1989, the soon-to-be hall of fame bound Hardaway. UTEP was last nationally ranked in 2010 and has only been ranked three times in the past 30 seasons and has not finished the season ranked since 1986.

Not since the sixties has UTEP had a player named to an all-American team and only two players in history have been named as such. Outside of Tiny Archibald and Hardaway, no UTEP player has gone on to become an NBA all-star and there have only been three UTEP players drafted in the first round of the NBA draft in its history. None of this negates that UTEP has a rich basketball history that had El Pasoans flocking to the arena to see, especially during the eighties when UTEP was a regular tournament team. It just illustrates that outside of a few years in the sixties, the university has never been a basketball power.

The one constant in the history of a UTEP fan has been the ability to take pride in the basketball team’s historic achievement. Hopefully, at some point, UTEP must restore the pride and build a basketball team that once again fills the Don Haskins Center.

Michael Cuviello may be reached at [email protected]@dlockz on Twitter.