What a difference a couple of months can make in the world of division 1 college basketball. Fresh off UTEP's first ever Conference USA Regular Season Championship and subsequent NCAA Tournament appearance, Miner fans were understandably excited about the possibilities of an even better 2011.
On senior night, the Miners didn't say goodbye to a single player. The core of the squad, Julyan Stone, Arnett Moultrie, Jeremy Williams, Derrick Caracter, Claude Britten, Myron Strong, and Randy Culpepper were all set to return. Losing Caracter, who thus far looks like the steal of the 2010 NBA Draft with the L.A. Lakers, was somewhat expected. Losing former head coach Tony Barbee was more than expected as he had flirted with several programs in the past and since he drew near nationwide interest even during the NCAA Tournament run.
The hiring of Tim Floyd more than made up for the loss of Tony Barbee and Derrick Caracter as Floyd is a beloved local figure, a veteran coach and dedicated recruiter, and excitement in his tenure was only elevated when he blew us away at his introductory press conference.
Floyd hit the ground running and within weeks secured one of the highest profile commitments in recent UTEP basketball memory when 6'8 Mississippi post Rashanti Harris committed to the Miners. Harris was "Mr. Basketball" in Mississippi in 2008 and was ranked the 26th best recruit in the nation that season by Rivals (37th by ESPN). Rivals rated him a 4 star prospect overall. Harris, somewhat shockingly, committed to Georgia State but never played there because of a failure to qualify academically. When Harris was signed, Floyd remarked that he "could play at the next level" and described him as an instinctive rebounder."
The signing of Harris, Desmond Lee, and others was somewhat offset by the shocking loss of veteran starter Arnett Moultrie and reserve point guard Myron Strong. Moultrie first "tested the waters" by participating in NBA pre draft camps. After deciding to stay in school, Moultrie decided to transfer to Mississippi State rather than wind up his career in El Paso. The move didn't make sense to us as Moultrie would be forced to either pay his own way at MSU in order to be eligible this season or sit out a year in order to play under scholarship at MSU. Strong was infamously dismissed by Floyd for a well publicized violation of team policy.
Academic issues have plagued Harris for several years now. In fact, Harris likely would have made the 2009 McDonalds High School All American game if not for academic struggles.
Now, various online reports are reporting that Harris did not qualify academically and will not participate in the Miners coming season. KTSM's Beau Bagley attempted to confirm this story with UTEP but received the following response:
Newschannel 9's Beau Bagley attempted to confirm this with the UTEP Basketball Team officials, but they neither confirmed or denied the report. One UTEP official told Beau that there are some changes in the UTEP basketball team, and they will all be announced at once later this month or in September before the season starts.
So, no official word from UTEP, but right now, I think its safe to assume Harris will not be eligible. Harris had four years of eligibility at UTEP, so hopefully he'll things in order and join the team in the future.
It's been a rough few weeks on the basketball front for the Miners and all these losses have undoubtedly taken a shot at any hope the Miners had to challenge Memphis next year in Conference USA. On a day when we lost Harris, the Tigers learned that Will Barton, ESPN's #1 shooting guard prospect in the country had in fact been ruled eligible by the NCAA despite an earlier ruling declaring he didn't qualify himself.
So, this is a tough break for the Miners, and another obstacle in the road for Harris. There is still time for UTEP to use Strong's scholarship to try and bring in another post player, but he Miners depth that carried them to the league title last season is now a distant memory.