Is Randy Culpepper the best kept kept secret in college basketball? While the national media occasionally tosses up a quick video shot of one his insane dunks, we have been privileged to see him mature into a fine all around player. He's had several huge scoring nights (45 against ECU; 27 against OU); but his improved play has more to do with points. While his scoring average may be only marginally better than last season, 18.0 ppg up from 17.5, he's playing much more efficiently on offense. His field goal percentage has substantially improved in his third year in the dribble-drive attack. Culpepper is shooting a career best 47.2% from the field up from his sophomore average of 41%. He's shooting 3% better from the three point line, up to a solid 37% this year. He's only turning the ball over 1.5 times a game; a significant improvement from the 2.3 he averaged a year ago. When the Miners need someone to step up and score points in a big game; he has answered the call.
Culpepper finally seems to have found his true role in Coach Barbee's dribble-drive weave offense. The departure of Stephon Jackson has allowed Culpepper to assume his role in the flow of the game. It is Culpepper who now attacks the hoop and establishes the pace of the Miner offense. He isn't forcing shots the way he did as a sophomore who wasn't sure of how many minutes he would get. Against Memphis, probably the highest profiled opponent on UTEP's schedule this season, he only took 8 shots but finished with 13 points. He's taking shots when the come to him through the offense and consequently he's become a far more efficient player. Randy Culpepper is playing the best basketball of his career right now.
While UTEP's offense is undoubtedly clicking, their win yesterday was absolutely the result of a swarming defensive effort that led to tons of easy baskets. Watch these quick highlights, courtesy of KVIA.com, to get a glimpse of UTEP's defensive aggressiveness (at the very least go to the 1:24 mark to see a ridiculous Culpepper dunk!).
As noted in the game-thread, UTEP held Tulsa to sub-25% shooting from the field in the first half (the Miners shot a scorching 58.1%). The most impressive thing is that the Miners were able to do that at Tulsa against a team led by two potentially NBA caliber seniors in Ben Uzoh and Jerome Jordan. Coach Barbee was thrilled, telling the El Paso Times "We're talking about the preseason favorite to win this league -- by a wide margin... Winning at UAB, winning at Memphis, winning at Tulsa ... that's a tremendous effort by our team."
Jordan had a solid line, 19 points and 13 rebounds, but Derrick Caracter and Arnett Moultrie were no slouches. Last time around, they both had double-doubles. They didn't quite get there this time (combining for 29 points & 14 rebounds), but they both had tremendous efforts nonetheless.
UP NEXT: UTEP (20-5, 11-1) vs. Southern Miss (16-10, 6-6) on Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Don't let Southern Miss's 6-6 conference record deceive you, they are starting to come together as a team. The Golden Eagles have won 6 of their last 8 and the two losses were at Tulsa and against UAB. In El Paso, they played the Miners tough falling 49-56. Both teams struggled from the field that night. That game marked the first win in this incredible 10 game winning streak.
In the coming days I intend to take a closer look at what our expectations need to be for the rest of the regular season, conference tournament, and UTEP's at large hopes for a bid in the NCAA tournament. Right now, the Miners are flying high, but let's not overlook the fact that Memphis and UAB are playing good basketball right now and the Miners have a tough road game at surging Marshall coming up on March 3.