Back in the Saddle: UTEP Holds Off Houston to Take Back 1st Place in C-USA

Randy Culpepper broke out of his recent shooting funk in a big way and the UTEP Miners had enough in the tank to hold off the Houston Cougars 76-64 in front of 11,173 fans at the Don Haskins Center.  Above, I've embedded Tim Floyd's post game press conference.  Here are my thoughts, in bullet points:

  • Great Britten:  Claude Britten had another big night offensively last night.  In UTEP's loss last week to USM, Britten had a somewhat shocking 21 points on a ridiculous 10/11 shots from the field.  It's clear that Tim Floyd found something with Claude in the post and he wasted little time feeding Britten again last night.  Britten hit 5/7 from the field and was UTEP's second leading scorer with 14 points.  This isn't last year.  There's no Hassan Whiteside or Jerome Jordan in the C-USA this season.  Claude has become and can continue to be a difference maker down the stretch for UTEP.  However, it's important that UTEP doesn't rely too heavily on their newly discovered weapon.  We all saw what happened when USM finally figured out how to deny Claude the ball last week.  UTEP's offense sputtered, ball movement wavered, and the Miners couldn't get into a rhythm.  
  • RC3 Is Back:  What a game for the reigning Conference USA Player of the Year.  Culpepper went 3/5 from three point land and hit all 12 of his free throw attempts last night.  He went 9/13 from the field overall. In his last three games, Randy has averaged just under 13 points a game.  Culpepper was hitting under 33% from the field through the last three games.  Last night, he shot a scorching 75% from the floor.  It was the fourth time Culpepper has scored more than 30 in a game this season, but the first since the 3 OT loss to UAB which was well over a month ago.  Culpepper scored 30+ against New Mexico State, Sam Houston, the Blazers, and now UH.
  • Bohannon Chips In:  There's no denying that John Bohannon's playing time has decreased immensely in February.  In UTEP's four games this month, Bohannon has played just an average of 12.5 minutes per game.  The fact is that Claude Britten has seen his value increase with UTEP's newfound desire to feed him the ball in the low lost.  Also, the hustle-heavy play of Gabe McCulley has been too good to limit.  Keep in mind that there were stretches of this season where Bohannon was getting 26-28 minutes a game.  That said, I liked what Bohannon contributed last night in 15 minutes of gametime.  He went 3/5 from the field, had 3 boards, and 2 blocks.  He's clearly UTEP's best shot blocker and one of the best we've had in years.  
  • One to Watch:  Last week, we saw how good a freshman can be when DJ Newbill gave us his best Julyan Stone impression.  The 6'4 freshman guard of course torched UTEP for 15 points and 16 rebounds in Hattiesburg. Last night, we saw yet another impressive freshman in Houston forward Alandise Harris.  Harris led UH with 18 points and 6 boards.    The scary thing?  We haven't seen the favorite to be the C-USA freshman of the year yet.  That title goes to Marshall's frosh guard DeAndre Kane who's averaging over 15 a game for the Herd.  He's 6'4 and loves to rebound too.  The future of the C-USA is looking pretty good.
  • Up and Down: Christian Polk can be the ace in UTEP's sleeve or a huge offensive liability.  It seems like there isn't a middle ground with him.  He's either an 18-20 point weapon that takes smart shots and can attack the rim off the dribble.  Or, he's what we saw last night:  a streaky shooter who often tries to shoot himself out of slumps to the teams detriment.  Polk was 0/7 from the field last night.  He did do a good job getting to the line and he hit all six of his free throw attempts.  As Britten has become a bigger part of the offense, its clear that his larger piece of the pie may mean fewer opportunities for Polk.
  • Scorching:   I don't care who we play, if UTEP hits 24 of 26 free throws like they did last night, the Miners can hang around with just about anyone.  The Miners hit a ridiculous 92.3% from the free throw line.   Polk was 6/6.  Britten was 4/4.  Culpepper was an insane 12/12.  That's just ridiculous.
  • Stagnation:  In the game thread, there was near consensus that UTEP was dominating just about every phase of the game last night.  Yet, Houston kept their deficit to 6-8 points until late in the game.  Sometimes its hard to tell if the Miners are playing to the level of their competition or if they just lack any sense of a killer instinct. 
  • The Race is On:  Hats off to the Rice Owls for stunning the Memphis Tigers last night.  I don't even want to begin to start trying to decipher the C-USA tiebreaker scenarios right now for Conference Tournament seeding.  I'll wait until at least after the ECU game on Wednesday to do that. How tight is this league?  Memphis entered last night in first place by a half game over UTEP.  They ended the night in 5th place because of their head to head loss to also 8-4 Tulsa.  That's right, if the C-USA tourney started today, the Memphis Tigers would be the 5 seed.  Wait, Tulsa's 8-4?  Yup.  Note that Tulsa has now beat UTEP, UAB, and Memphis this season.  They have Marshall this week and still have a season ending clash in Hattiesburg against USM.  Let me say this:  Do not rule out Tulsa in the regular season conference championship talk.  Their head-to-head wins give them tiebreaker advantages over the other contenders and they still have a shot at USM.  Of course, they split with UTEP, but TU is in a good position to steal a 2 seed for the C-USA Tournament.  Seriously.  What a wild season it's been.  If the regular season has been like this, who knows what's going to go down at the tourney in a few weeks?
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