The UTEP Miners and the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles square off in the season opener for both teams Friday night at the Don Haskins Center. The Miners enter with high expectations, fielding a young team that looks to improve on last year's 15 win season. The Golden Eagles are coming off a 27-7 campaign a year ago, but will have to replace a couple of key pieces from last year's team, namely small forward Dominique Morrison (19.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg).
The Miners return three starters from a year ago, losing forward Gabriel McCulley to graduation, and guard Michael Perez to transfer (Nevada). Returning starters are senior point guard Jacques Streeter (7.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.4 apg), sophomore guard/forward Julian Washburn (11.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.6 apg), and junior center John Bohannon (11.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg).
Much like the start of last year, the starting rotation is still yet to be set. But, one can expect Streeter, Washburn, and Bohannon to be joined by the likes of either sophomore guard/forward Jalen Raglend or sophomore guard C.J. Cooper at the shooting guard spot, and either sophomore forward Cedrick Lang or senior forward Malcolm Moore at the power forward spot.
Beyond the starting rotation though, the Miners will also look to play freshman forward Chris Washburn Jr., freshman guard/forward Twymond Howard, and freshman center Hooper Vint. Graduate transfer Konner Tucker, who was expected to be a big part of this team, is out at least two months with a broken wrist. Freshman center Matt Willms did not qualify academically and will redshirt, and sophomore guard McKenzie will not eligible until December.
The Golden Eagles return three starters, including senior guard Warren Niles (12.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.2 apg), and senior center Damen Bell-Holter (7.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg). They will be looking to replace not only the aforementioned Dominique Morrison, who currently plays for the New Orleans Hornets, but also forward Michael Craion and G Roderick Pearson, Jr.
Joining the Oral Roberts returning starters are guys like junior forward Shawn Glover, a transfer, as well as freshman guard Korey Billbury, and junior forward Steven Roundtree. Glover, who sat out the 2011-12 season due to transfer rules, came over from Utah, and has already made a big impact in the Golden Eagles' exhibition contests, as have Billbury and Roundtree. All scored in double figures in both contests.
Its hard to get a true read on exactly where either of these teams currently stand. The Miners looked a little flat in their lone exhibition, but downed Southeastern Oklahoma despite only shooting 32% from the field. The Golden Eagles on the other hand, looked much sharper in their two exhibitions, downing Missouri Southern 83-66 and Oklahoma Wesleyan 92-69.
Now for the Miners, a couple of things must be said. First of all, we shouldn't read too much into the outcome of their exhibition contest. Players were being shuffled in and out as Tim Floyd was certainly trying to get a feel for what exactly he's got on this squad. Remember they're still one of the youngest teams in the nation, and may need some time to figure everything out on the court.
Also, Floyd coached teams have been known to get off to slow starts. Just looking back at the last two seasons, the Miners lost both openers against Pacific in 2010, and UTSA in 2011. Not to mention they fell to Eastern New Mexico in an exhibition contest last year as well. That's not to say we should expect a loss, but we should realize this won't be an easy game either way.
After all, Oral Roberts may have lost a couple of key pieces from last year's team, but they bring back a mix of talented, experienced players to go along with some promising freshman, and an explosive transfer. That's exactly why they are still the preseason pick to win the Southland Conference.
We should have a very hotly contested game between two talented teams that are looking to get off on the right foot in the 2012-13 season. The Golden Eagles will be looking to rebound from their disappointing end to 2011-12 that saw them exit early from the NIT, and the Miners will be looking to make a return to the postseason. One of these teams will take that first step forward Friday night, the other will have to head back to the drawing board.
Miners 68, Golden Eagles 65