If you like high-energy, smothering, and relentless defense, you’re going to love UTEP basketball this season. The Miners play some major defense, and soon they will find out if that will translate into a lot of wins.
Last season, UTEP finished third in Conference USA–and there’s reason to believe they have a good chance at claiming the top spot this time around. But don’t tell that to head coach Tim Floyd just yet. The Miners leader told Breitbart Sports his team will have to make up for the loss of two top players from a year ago.
“We never put limitations on our players,” Floyd said. “We’re always trying to play for conference titles and go to the NCAA Tournament, but that may not be realistic. We lost our starting backcourt from last season and have had difficulties replacing those guys.”
Perhaps. But it’s not like the team is made up of all newcomers. Five of the Miners’ top seven scorers are back including Julian Washburn, John Bohannon, and McKenzie Moore. Washburn is the complete package bringing scoring and superb defense to the team.
The biggest addition to the roster is literally, Matt Willms, who stands at 7-foot-1. Four-star recruit Vince Hunter should also give the Miners added pop with his 6-foot-7 frame. The Miners big men are athletic too able to run the floor, giving the team a real presence on the break.
The Miners intend to use their size and defense to their advantage while battling opponents and offensive slanted rule changes.
“Our number one goal is to put a team on the floor that is competitive night in and night out,” said Floyd. “The new hand-checking rules are going to change the game. I think you’re going to see a lot more free throws being shot this year. We’re trying to adjust, like everyone else is, but our goal is still going to be to try to play hands off man-to-man defense.
“Defense is where we’ve always hung our hat. We have a bigger team this year and there may be instances where you see players that are 7-1, 6-11, 6-8 and 6-7 on the court at the same time. We have a chance to be a good rebounding team. We like our front court, we just have some questions with our guards.”
As far as a regular lineup is concerned, that could be an ongoing project. “We haven’t set a starting five, and honestly our starting five might continue to evolve over the course of the season, Floyd said.
Addressing the team’s backcourt is the challenge right now. Fans in El Paso may see several faces filling roles until the best formula is discovered.
“We expect C.J. Cooper to make shots for us this year and it was great to see Jalen Ragland shoot 50 percent in our exhibition game the other night,” Floyd said. “Hopefully he can build on that. McKenzie Moore is an extremely talented player, but he was coming back from a sprained ankle and then hurt his other ankle in practice last week. Hopefully we can get him back soon. We also have a transfer from Eastern Washington, Justin Crosgile, and a walk-on named Tevin Caldwell who has shown that he can help us, particularly from a defensive standpoint.”
UTEP can play defense with just about anyone in the country. Finding the bottom of the net on a consistent basis will take some more work. The Miners are covering all bases looking for the answers.
“You have to start by looking at the guys who have been here the last couple of years,” Floyd said. “Washburn was a third team All-Conference player last year. He and Cooper both shot the ball very well late last season, and we’re looking for them to carry that over in 2013-14. Bohannon is our only senior and is determined to take on more of a leadership role. I like what I’ve seen from him so far in practice. We like Moore, but he has battled injuries early this year.”
Enter the talented freshmen.
“Willms and Hunter have both shown signs in our scrimmage and exhibition game,” Floyd said. “You can see why Vince was rated the 21st best player in the country by one outlet last year. He is an instinctive rebounder and will really be able to help us in that area. Hopefully he will learn that rebounding leads to scoring.”
The boards should certainly be there. This UTEP squad could be its best rebounding group in years. Cedrick Lang is one of the many Miners’ big board crashers.
The new look Conference USA will feature multiple teams with a chance to succeed. UTEP is right in the mix. “With the turnover in Conference USA, we’re still trying to evaluate each team’s personnel,” Floyd said. “It’s going to be fun for us and for the fans as we’re introduced to new players, coaches, teams and logos.”
Eight schools have joined the conference: Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Louisiana Tech, Texas-San Antonio, Charlotte and Old Dominion. Gone are UCF, Houston, SMU, and most importantly Memphis, the class of the league for years.
While the Tigers departure should be music to the ears of the remaining C-USA teams, some of the new clubs are very dangerous. Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, and Charlotte could all make a run at the top of the heap along with UTEP, Southern Miss, UAB, and Tulsa. Yes, it’s that wide open. The parity in this conference mirrors the national landscape of college hoops.
Looking ahead, there’s been some serious talk about a very special UTEP-Kentucky match-up in 2016 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the NCAA title game that pitted Kentucky against Texas Western, UTEP’s original school name. Nothing’s set in stone but there is certainly a buzz surrounding a potential Miners-Cats clash.
“I can’t talk too much about that because the details are still being worked out,” Floyd told Breitbart Sports. “I can tell you that the 1966 game obviously was tremendous for our program and for the game of basketball. We certainly want to mark the anniversary in some sort of special way.”
That is certainly something to look forward to, but for now, it’s all about this season and a UTEP team with plenty of potential. Defense will be the name of the game for the Miners. If they can find a rhythm on offense, this team could wield its pickaxe and do some serious damage.