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UTEP Basketball: Non-conference thoughts

With conference play opening this weekend, there are few more questions to be answered, and consistency is a key word over the next 18 games.

Twelve non-conference games have been played, eight wins, and four close losses to teams (NMSU?) that should be dancing by mid-March has been the story record wise.

But what do we all make of this start as UTEP prepares for C-USA play where they were voted to finish second, and have shown they may be right at or better than second at times this season.

What We've Learned......

Vince Hunter is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. 

Hunter has recorded a double-double in eight of twelve games, and single handedly kept UTEP afloat offensively against Arizona until he "allegedly" fouled out in the second half.

So far this season VH ranks fourth nationally in double-doubles, and is 11th in nation in rebounds per game, two categories he sits atop the C-USA rankings.   I'm gonna be bold and predict a 20 rebound game is on the horizon this season, Vince has been that good.

It's also safe to say he is in the driver seat when it comes to the league MVP race, but his performance so far tells me there is more to come, as Vince's rebounding, and scoring comes, so do the Miners chances of winning on the scoreboard.

This team can still defend

Opponent's field goal percentage is just above 40 percent, though UTEP has shown lengthy stretches of the signature Tim Floyd defense the core of this group fully bought into last season.

Maybe it wasn't just Vince Hunter doing his thing that kept UTEP in the game against Arizona, it was also 17 forced turnovers, and an improved defensive attack on the blocks compared to the start of the season.

Earvin Morris brings extra length along with Julian Washburn on the perimeter, and Omega Harris has the quickest hands on the team with a growing knack of poking the ball away in opportune situations without fouling. 

C.J. Cooper has also done a good job of stopping the ball, and starting the defense where CTF demands it to be started.  We rag on Cooper for his offense, but his defense has been top level all season.

UTEP had held their opponents to under 70 points in eight out of the twelve games; the principles are there and have been shown, although consistency in executing that will shut down C-USA foes. 

With Cedrick Lang, and Matt Willms growing a defensive chemistry in the paint, inside and out UTEP can give C-USA teams fits with their presence, and pressure.

Omega Harris is consistently good at a lot of things

Harris committed only three turnovers in the first 84 minutes of his UTEP career, and is consistently becoming a force in multiple ways, showing that scoring isn't always his priority.

His always high energy, high effort, pesky defense is the most consistent part of his young and ever growing game at this point.  But he has also shown a true point guard gene, a shooters touch, and the ability to help on the glass.

While it could take a few more games to put that all together (could be close to triple double potential when it happens), Harris is improving at the right time, and continues on the early path to his peak with every minute he plays.

His minutes have steadily increased as he logged a career high 32 minutes of action against Kent State, CTF did mention they wanted to ease the young guards in as the season moved along.

We all knew the potential was there, but to see the consistency he has shown in most phases early in his career spells stardom down the road of the young man's future in the Orange and Blue.

Matt Willms is almost there

The talk about Matt Willms from the coaching staff in the beginning of his career was that there is a ceiling Willms would break through, and once he breaks it, we would have an All-Conference player manning the middle.

Over the past seven games, Willms has been as close to that ceiling as he has ever been since his first game as a Miner.

It's not just the 8.5 points per game, and 6.4 rebounds he has brought during that stretch of games, it's the defensive presence with a physical punch he is delivering that stands out the most.

Willms has had at least one block in the past seven games, and only twice this season he hasn't officially recorded a block in the stat book.  If there was a shot altering stat in stat columns,  Willms would probably be leading the conference.

He understands his length and physical presences he can bring with it, and what it adds to the defensive principles UTEP abides by, and with improved confidence on the defensive end, his confidence on offense will and has rose as well.

Would love to see Matt get to the free throw mine more, and stretch the defense out with his mid-range J, but that could all come together quickly over the next month, just like the other improvements marks he has shown in the past month of action.

What still needs to be answered....

Who will become a consistent backcourt scoring threat?

C.J. Cooper is in an offensive flow and shooting slump, Julian Wasburn showed some much needed aggressiveness in the Sun Bowl Tournament, and Omega Harris is still growing his offensive consistency, but who is going to be the Alpha Scoring Dog among the guards?

Earvin Morris has passed Cooper as UTEP's "pure shooter" (IMO), though when he struggles, he really struggles, but can be an X-Factor when in a grove.   Somehow if UTEP can get Cooper and Morris going, C-USA teams are in trouble.

Washburn is a seasoned vet, and will continue to be aggressive and find his niche, but a consistent backcourt scorer is needed if UTEP wants to continue playing deep into March.

Is the rotation set?

We know there are a set eight or nine guys who have earned minutes for conference play, but what is the rotation going to look like with the tweaking of the starting lineup over the past few games, and what lineup combos has the coaches thinking Bingo?

The slow starts on offense maybe attributed to the early starting lineups, but has one been cemented over the break, and a few practices after it?

Will the inside and outside game become a consistent identity on offense?

Matt Willms and Cedrick Lang have combined for 23 assists over the past four games, and UTEP's offense has been a little quicker and sharper in the half court with Omega Harris running the show that has seemingly started with a deep post touch.

With UTEP's trouble in starting slow, can the consistency of a potentially potent inside-out attack be UTEP's key in putting opponents away during conference play?

UTEP arguably has the best frontcourt in the conference, and if Ced and Matt continue to move the ball, and move well without it, UTEP will crush, and wear down opponents in the paint via cutters or just inside and out motion. 

The pieces are there

We've seen good, we've seen bad, and we've seen both in what seems like every game.

The leadership to take this team over that hump of being a good team to a great team also has to show up in second portion of the season.

Who will emerge from a leadership standpoint could be the most important question, and UTEP has three candidates who have played a lot of basketball in front of us for the past three and a half seasons.

Key word down the stretch of the season: consistency

The pieces are there, coming almost full circle in most phases, but can it consistently come together over the next two months is the question that will be answered of what will unfold or fold during Conference USA action.