Coming off a season in which they finished 15-17 overall, and 7-9 in conference play, the UTEP basketball team prepares to enter a new season in which the expectations are extremely high. With some new pieces in play, and others with another year of experience under their belt, people both inside and outside of the program are excited for what the future holds.
Most media outlets are predicting the Miners to finish somewhere around the top 4 of Conference USA, and that's probably a realistic projection. However, considering the flashes of brilliance this team showed a year ago, and what they've added to the equation this year, a finish even higher than that may not be so far fetched. At least, the team certainly doesn't think so.
Months ago, when we had a chance to catch up the Miners' basketball team during the offseason, there was one consistent answer that came from every player we spoke to. The goal for this team is to win Conference USA, and make the NCAA tournament. Junior center John Bohannon echoed that sentiment a couple days ago when we talked to him at the team's first practice.
"Its always exciting to start the season. I love getting in here, we all do. We're all excited and ready to get going on this upcoming season. Our expectations every year are to find a way into the NCAA tournament and contend for the conference".
Of course, with some extremely talented and experienced squads around the league, a Conference USA championship is a tall order. However this young team, which comes in as the 12th youngest team in the country, seems up to the challenge. And, challenged they'll be, from very early on in the year.
The Miners open up the season November 9th, at home, against an Oral Roberts team that won 27 games a year ago, and knocked off teams like Missouri State, Xavier, and Texas Tech, and nearly came up with a win at Gonzaga en route to an NIT tournament appearance.
The team will then head to Tuscon to take on an Arizona team that ranks 11th in the first USA Today Poll of the year. The Old Spice Classic follows, as does an extremely tough non-conference run that features games against New Mexico State, UNLV (ranked 19th), and Oregon. To say the Miners will have their hands full would be an understatement.
But, this team is on a mission to show people just exactly how good they are. And, this coaching staff is on a mission to return the program to the national prominence that it saw for decades under the late great Don Haskins.
While the team did lose Gabriel McCulley to graduation and Michael Perez to transfer (Nevada), they still return 5 of their top 7 scorers, and 4 of their top 5 rebounders. They also adds key pieces like Parade All-American Twymond Howard, highly touted power forward Chris Washburn Jr., and senior transfer Konner Tucker (Sam Houston State).
While much of the offseason talk has been centered around the marquee additions to the team, Tucker may just be one who could be somewhat of an 'x' factor for such a young team. The grad student from Forth Worth spent time at Wake Forest, and was highly recruited by Kentucky before making his way to SHSU where he was the team's leading scorer a year ago.
"I've experienced a lot of things; from the highest of the highs D-1 to low D-1, and now I'm at a big time program like UTEP. [I'm] just going to do whatever I can to help the team win. If that's playing 30 minutes or 10-15 minutes, whatever I can do"
There's no doubt that Tucker's experience will add another element to a team with an already explosive mix of talent, size, speed, and depth.
Also, we can't forget that another newcomer in combo guard Mckenzie Moore will become available in mid-December. While he is currently unable to participate in team practices, and will likely be simply thrust into action, his skill set is unquestioned, and he should make an immediate impact for this team.
Add all those pieces together, and combine them with guys like Bohannon, sophomore guard/forward Julian Washburn, senior point guard Jacques Streeter, sophomore power forward Cedrick Lang and others, and you've got a solid nucleus of players who if they can gel well from early on, could be extremely dangerous.
Who knows; maybe our expectations for this team are a bit high. Again, we can't forget that they're one of the youngest teams in the nation. Then again, maybe our expectations aren't quite high enough. This team is loaded with talent and depth, and there's no question the guys at the helm know exactly what they're doing. Will they win the conference and/or make it to the NCAA tournament? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure; I can't wait to find out.