February is rapidly turning into March and the UTEP Miners are hitting their stride at the right time. UTEP is rolling through Conference USA as evidenced by these accumulated accomplishments the Miners have earned through 12 games of C-USA play.
- UTEP is ranked #25 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll for the first time in 18 years. This is the first time UTEP has been ranked in a national poll since the final poll in the 1991-92 season. UTEP is ranked #26 in the AP Poll.
- School Record 10 game conference winning streak
- Clinched a first-round bye in the Conference USA Tournament
The ranking is nice. It's always good to end a negative streak and re-enter the national conversation in a marquee sport. The streak has been incredibly fun to follow and winning 10 in a row with huge wins against Memphis, UAB, and Tulsa. The fact that UTEP beat all of those teams on their homecourt is phenomenal. Clinching a first round bye in the tournament is nothing to sneeze at (just ask Tulsa). These accomplishments are good and if the season ended today, they would be grand. The problem is, there is a lot of basketball left to be played, and the Miners haven't earned a single banner to hang in the Don.... yet.
Goal #1: Win the C-USA Regular Season Title and get the #1 Seed in the C-USA Tournament
Goal #2: Win the C-USA Tournament and get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament
Goal #3: Make some noise in the NCAA Tournament
Every college basketball team aspires to be a part of March Madness. When a team gets into the tournament, anything can happen. George Mason can make the Final Four. UTEP can beat a #1 seed (remember that, Kansas?). Before, the Miners can truly enjoy the Madness, they have to take care of business against a USM team that is playing their best basketball of the year, a Marshall team that has won 5 straight and is anchored by 7 footer Hassan Whiteside, and a team many believe has the best NCAA at-large hopes of any of the teams in C-USA (UAB). The schedule is not easy, but the Miners have a cushion.
The Road to the C-USA Regular Season Title and #1 Seed
Other than UTEP, only UAB and Memphis have a true chance at stealing the #1 seed. Obviously, only UTEP controls their own destiny at this point.
- Easy Street: UTEP wins out against USM, Rice, Marshall, and UAB and finishes 15-1 in the regular season. But, what if UTEP finishes 3-1?
- If the Miners lose one game, it won't really hurt them. UAB would still be out. The best Memphis could do is finish 14-2. UTEP wins the tie-breaker scenario and gets the #1 seed and regular season title. The win at Memphis was huge.
- Living Dangerously: UTEP loses twice and finishes 13-3 in league play.
- Memphis: Memphis could steal the regular season crown if they win out.
- UAB: If the Blazers win out, they would beat UTEP and Memphis and finish at 13-3 tied with the Miners (and a split record against them). Th tie-breaker would be the teams record against the next team in the standings (Likely Memphis). Since UAB lost to Memphis once, UTEP would win the tie-breaker.
- Yes, there are other nightmare scenarios (like UTEP somehow finishing 1-3 down the stretch) but that seems highly unlikely at this point. Realistically speaking, Memphis needs UTEP to lose twice. UAB needs UTEP to lose three times in order to win the C-USA regular season title.
So, it is reasonable for UTEP fans to expect a regular season title at this point? You bet it is. But consider the next questions:
1. What if UTEP has a bad loss in the C-USA tournament?
2. The Nightmare Scenario. What if a team other than UAB or UTEP wins the tourney? C-USA is not getting three bids this year, so who has a better at large profile between UTEP and UAB?
3. Can Memphis move ahead of UAB or UTEP in the at-large discussion?
That, my friends, is why we take Baby Steps. In the coming days, Part 2 of this series will discuss these scenarios in more detail.