With one last lengthy layoff between games behind them, UTEP (11-5, 3-1) prepares to face a much better UTSA Roadrunner team (8-7, 2-2) tomorrow afternoon in San Antonio.
While its not yet safe to say the Runners have arrived as a threat in their C-USA basketball infancy, head coach Brooks Thompson has made positive strides with his rookies, and is getting great production from his veterans this season.
UTSA has four players averaging double figure scoring numbers, as a team they are second in the C-USA in steals, and do a good job of taking care of the ball, while also holding their own on the boards with their respectable size.
Senior Jeromie Hill returns from missing last year with a knee injury, and has picked up right where he left off in the WAC.
Hill averages 15.9 points per game to go along with 7.1 rebounds, and has a high basketball IQ that allows him to use his wide 6'8 body to create offensive separation, and position on the boards. He is also a 1,000 point scorer, and ranks in the top five in both rebounding and scoring in UTSA history.
Fellow Senior and guard Keon Lewis was asked to be the do it all guy last year, though this year Thompson recruited him a little help in the back court.
Lewis is second on the team in scoring, and has scored in double figures in 10 out of his last 12 games, though Ryan Bowie, Gino Littles, Christian Wilson, and Larry Lewis are all decent back court mates that have each seen their moments of production through the course of the season.
The Runners use a patient offensive attack, though most of the time they truly live and die by three. UTSA has exactly 300 attempts from three point land this season, with the bulk of the attempts coming from Hill, Bowie and Lewis.
The Runners will pick and roll, pick and pop, and drive and kick on the offensive end, the ball rarely stops moving via pass or dribble.
They have made three less free throws then their opponents have attempted on the season, UTEP has to be disciplined in not fouling and getting lost on picks and actions around the perimeter that could open the lane for drivers.
Bowie scored UTSA's first 12 points against Southern Miss. all coming via three pointers, it appears UTSA offensively is a more capable product of what Rice does offensively.
But they also have some size up front, but not enough to depth to say its a strength for UTSA.
Center Kaj-Bjorn Sherman goes 7'0, 250 and is coming off back-to-back nine rebound games. Phillip Jones will come off the bench to most likely guard Vince Hunter and provides mainly a physical presence with a wide 6'6 200 pound frame.
Simply put for UTEP, if they defend and play with great effort, things will open in a lot of phases in this game.
Coach Floyd said it best when it comes to the offensive side of things.
"It seems like we play better when the ball goes inside, we touch it inside and it moves around a little bit, Floyd said. "We take care of it better, we tend to get our big guys involved where they want to rebound and defend and do everything else that little guys don't do, like screen. They need to touch it and we got it in their hands, shot for a better percentage, got fouled a little more and played better."
Inside-out is the key for UTEP to get back to the offensive growth we saw a few weeks ago. this is the time of year the Miners have to turn it up a notch, and hope things start to consistency come together in all phases especially with an at-large bid out of the window.
Rivals and Inside UTSA's Staff Writer Javi Cardenas gives us a little more insight from the UTSA side with a Q&A.
MinerRush: What is your overall take of the Runners so far this season?
Javi Cardenas: The season is going about how I expected. The basketball program is slowly getting were it needs to be to be competitive at the C-USA level. UTSA might not win any conference championships anytime soon, but at least they are playing at a competitive level unlike last year. The most impressive win of the season is versus a good Texas State squad. They do have some bad losses against UTPA, Southern Utah, and Rice.
MR: I guess you can call this season a turnaround (though its not complete) compared to last year, but how much has not only depth helped UTSA but productive depth?
JC: There are several factors as to why UTSA has improved this season. UTSA finally has its best player back in Jeromie Hill. Last years recruiting class brought UTSA players like guard Ryan Bowie, walk-on starting point guard Gino Littles, and freshman guard Christian Wilson. The return of forward Phillip Jones from injury has also been key this season. Jones is a force inside. He led the Roadrunners in rebounds and blocks last season as a starter. Now Jones comes off the bench.
MR: In a weird way IMO, UTSA has made about the same number of free throws as their opponents have attempted, and they shoot a lot threes, but what is the true offensive ID of the Runners?
JC: UTSA likes to move the ball around the perimeter until it gets the look they want. There are two ways UTSA scores. It will move the ball until they find an open three point shooter or they work the ball inside to Hill, or 7-footer Kaj Sherman. UTSA has been doing a better job moving the ball since Gino Littles was inserted into the lineup. If the three point shot does not fall for UTSA life becomes complicated.
MR: When Jeromie Hill does this.....UTSA Is pretty darn good?
JC: When Jeromie Hill is aggressive UTSA does pretty darn good. Hill has great foot work in the low post. UTSA needs to get him going early if they hope to win this game.
MR: Who has been a pleasant surprise for UTSA this season?
JC: For me personally it has been center Kaj Sherman. The 7-footer has been playing lights out recently. He dealt with injuries all of last season. He is healthy and playing great for UTSA. In his last three games he is averaging 14.3 points and 8.3 rebounds.
MR: Does Brooks Thompson zone the hell out of UTEP in trying to keep Vince Hunter, and Cedrick Lang out of the paint?
JC: There is a simple answer to this. Yes. UTSA rarely goes away from its zone defense. If UTEP can hit open shots they will win this game.
MR: Is there a buzz around the UTSA campus/Twitter world or San Antonio folks about this game and what it could mean going forward for UTSA if they can manage the upset?
JC: Sadly no. This is pretty big conference game, but sadly no one cares. The city of San Antonio does not know it has division 1 basketball team. Campus wise it the same. Some students will show up, but don't expect a big crowd. That's just the way it is.
JC: Give me UTEP 65, UTSA 53
Huge thanks to Javi for helping us preview the Runner, check out the Q&A I did for InsideUTSA.