It is not basketball season quite yet, but with the football team sitting at 1-5 and in last place in the West division, it's not too early to start looking ahead to the Miner men's basketball season. Miner fans in El Paso and elsewhere are excited about the 2013-2014 edition of UTEP basketball, and rightfully so. The Miners return five players who averaged at least 15 minutes of playing time, host the Conference USA Tournament, and no longer have to deal with perennial favorite Memphis. If there's one lesson we can learn from the football season however, it's not to get our Miner goggles too fogged up with excitement.
It will be nearly impossible to consider this upcoming season without wondering what could have been if the Miners were putting out the team they were projected to have a few months ago. Isaac Hamilton was supposed to be the dynamic scorer and facilitator that made life easy for Washburn and Bohannon. Andre Spight and Jacob Thomas were supposed to add depth and diversity to the guard position. But all that flew out the window for the Miners when Spight and Thomas failed to qualify and Hamilton gave UTEP the Judas kiss. The latest hit to the Miner pool of guards is that Eastern Washington transfer Justin Crosgile will not be making it to El Paso after all. All this in mind, the 2013-2014 should be a great team to root for considering they are now back in the underdog role.
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The back court has many questions entering the 2013-2014 season. UTEP loses their best assist man from a year ago in Jacques Streeter (5.3 per game while no one on the team averaged more than 2). Streeter was not particularly explosive offensively, but he was a stabilizer for the Miner offense, bringing the ball up the court, not turning it over, and getting the offense started. Those duties will now have to be shared by veterans C.J. Cooper and McKenzie Moore, two talented players no doubt, but not players many would consider "true" point guards. A point guard by committee system has its advantages, but it will be interesting to see who is the main ball handler when the Miners are in close games late.
The Miners also lose their best 3-point shooter from a year ago in Konner Tucker, who has stayed in El Paso as the Assistant Director of Basketball Operations. This is just another area in which this group will have to step up and become more consistent in. Part of the excitement over receiving a commitment from Isaac Hamilton was the offensive capacity he could have added to a team that struggled to score at times last year. Moore and Cooper would have become excellent role players that would have given the Miners the ability to throw various different looks at opponents. Instead, the Miners are going to have to increase Moore and Cooper's minutes, try to speed up the development of freshmen Josh Brown and Jake Flaggert, and hope Jalen Ragland can become a more consistent shooter. If the two freshmen do not acclimate to the speed and intensity of the college game quick enough (i.e. Twymond Howard last year), and if McKenzie Moore's wrist injury is not just a minor tweak, then the Miners could be really thin at a position that other contenders in the league are loaded at (Southern Miss with Neil Watson, Michael Craig and Jerrold Brooks and Louisiana Tech with Raheem Appleby, Kenneth Smith, and Alex Hamilton).
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The Miners are strongest at the forward position, and the main reason is once again, Julian Washburn. Washburn will again be the Miners' best player and the key for Floyd on the defensive side of the ball. As long as Washburn is on the floor, the opposing team's best scorer is almost guaranteed to have a below average game. Another offensively dynamic player would have taken immense pressure off of Washburn as the team's number one scoring option. As it stands, Julian will have to continue to exert incredible effort on both sides of the court if the team is to be successful.
This is where newcomer Vince Hunter comes into play. The 6'8 forward is about the same size as Washburn and is already regarded as the best athlete on the team. To paraphrase Tim Floyd's take on him, 'the kid can street ball.' How quickly Hunter learns and adjusts to Floyd's system will be key. At the very least, Hunter's athleticism and motor should potentially give the Miners a dominant rebounder finally, and a second outstanding defender to go along with Washburn.
Cedrick Lang will also be back for year 3 with the Miners. His sophomore numbers look almost identical to his freshman year numbers, except for a 4 percentage point dip in field goal percentage and a slight rise in rebounds per game. Lang is limited offensively, but he is consistent and tough.
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The center position is once again anchored by the mercurial John Bohannon. Every year we see a similar interview with Bo about the upcoming year in which he clearly states that the Big Dance is the main goal. Well, now the 6'10 center is entering his fourth and final year as a Miner and UTEP fans hope that fact will motivate him to have his biggest year yet. Bohannon's sheer volume of games played will ensure that his numbers are among the UTEP greats; this season will see him enter the 1,000 points/500 rebounds club and he'll probably end up somewhere between 15th and 25th on the all-time Miner scoring list. But three years into his UTEP career, Bohannon's legacy is still in question in many Miner fans' minds. Bo's productivity took dips in just about every category last year. He played less minutes (in part attributable to being in Floyd's doghouse), took less shots, grabbed less rebounds, made less assists, and went from being a 73% free throw shooter to a 64% free throw shooter. Interestingly enough however, Bohannon almost doubled his blocked shots last year. More than ever, the Miners will need John Bohannon to be a consistent player. He has the skills to be the best big man in Conference-USA.
The pressure becomes even more palpable if promising freshmen center Matt Willms cannot return from his shoulder issues. As reported by the El Paso Times, Willms has a torn labrum and would miss about 5 months if he opted to have surgery. Willms wants to gut it out and play this year, delaying surgery until after the year. That being said, he has not been finishing practices and we can expect that even if he does play this season, his minutes will be limited to protect him. Sophomore Hooper Vint may have an increased role this year, especially considering some players have already mentioned him as one of the more improved Miners heading into the year.
The Projected Starting Lineup
G - McKenzie Moore
G - C.J. Cooper
F - Julian Washburn
F - Cedrick Lang
C - John Bohannon
Surprisingly, most of the buzz heading into the 2013-2014 season has been around Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech. The Miners are picked anywhere between 2nd to 5th in many publications. The new edition of UTEP men's basketball will not have a true point guard, nor an explosive offensive player. That being said, they should have a tremendous advantage in the front court and should continue to be a defensive-minded, frustrating team to play. If the guards can step up in their increased roles and the newcomers can adjust and produce at this level in year one, then hanging new banners in the Haskins Center next summer is likely.