The next team that will try to halt UTEP’s winning streak, and possibly spoil UTEP’s chances for an invitation to the NCAA Tournament is the tough Southern Miss Golden Eagles. The Miners will be on the road for this one. The Miners have won 5 road games in a row, a school record, but road games are always dangerous. The Golden Eagles have been playing very well lately, having won 6 of their last 8 games. The Miners are white hot, and haven’t lost a game since the middle of January. On Monday, the Coaches Poll ranked them in the Top Twenty-Five, for the first time since 1992.
Here’s what’s at stake in this game. The Miners are playing to; 1) continue their record setting winning streak, including their road games winning streak, 2) hold onto their top spot in C-USA, 3) enhance their chances for an At Large Bid to the NCAA Tournament, if needed, and 4) hold on to their top seed in the conference tournament. Southern Miss, on the other hand, would love to play the role of spoiler. Also, don’t lose sight of the fact that the only guaranteed invitation to The Dance goes to the conference tournament winner. A win over UTEP would be great for the Eagles confidence and momentum going into the conference tournament.
The Eagles’ leading scorer is 6′ 8″ Gary Flowers, who averages 7.8 rebounds and 14.8 points in 31 minutes a game. He is a solid defender, and the fourth best shot blocker in the conference. Angelo Johnson averages 10 points a game. Maurice Bolden, 6′ 10″ guard, adds 9.5 points and pulls down almost 6 rebounds per game . Guard R.L. Horton gives the Eagles another 8.2 points per game. Southern Miss’ Ayarza and Pelham add another 6 points each. The Eagles have some depth of their own, and can bring scorers off of the bench.
The Miners have arguably the best big man in the conference in Derrick Caracter. At 6′9, 275 pounds, his strength, quickness and agility allows him to lay claim to the paint. He is ranked third in the conference in rebounding and first in field goal percentage. He has the ability to force taller, thinner big men out of the paint, and few can handle his quick scoring moves. Arnette Moultrie, 6′ 11″ F, grabs 6.9 rebounds and adds 10.6 points per game. Jeremy Williams pulls down 5.2 rebounds and adds his 10.7 points per game. UTEP’s biggest offensive weapon is Randy Culpepper. Culpepper is averaging 18 points per game, and defensively he plays like his hair is on fire. He is everywhere, in opposing player’s faces, jumping into passing lanes , disrupting offenses, and keeping teams off balance. Six foot, five inch guard, Julyan Stone is the commander. He is second in the conference in assists, and his 2.1 assists to turnovers ratio is the best in Conference USA. Coming off the bench, Christian Polk adds another 10.7 points per game. He, and Culpepper are always a threat to hit the three pointer if given the slightest opening.
Southern Miss will try to match UTEP’s tough defense with their own. They have the bench to help lessen one of UTEP’s usual advantages, the ability to wear teams down with their depth. UTEP will try to control the the tempo by pushing the ball up court when they can, and perhaps employing a three quarter court press on defense at times. I would look for UTEP to try and smother Flowers on defense, and try to force him to the outside. I think Coach Barbee will use a combination of tough, in your face, man to man, and zone defense to keep the Eagles off balance and from getting into any kind of rhythm on offense. The Miners will be in a dog fight. But, in the end, they should be able to pull away, and win this one by a score of 70 to 63.