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UAB at UTEP Game Preview

The oldest C-USA basketball rivalry takes place in the Don Thursday night.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Two teams in the C-USA race that will make you scratch your head in disbelief when you look at the standings meet in an important C-USA battle Thursday night.

Classic down to the wire or overtime battles, offensive and defensive slug fests, and plenty of emotion usually take place when UTEP and UAB meet for some C-USA hoops.

But this year feels a little different in terms of expectations.....what to expect out of two teams heading in opposite directions at this point of the year?

UAB is where UTEP could be standings wise had a few jumper's, and free throws fallen this past weekend.  Honestly, UAB is where UTEP fans thought they would be in October (C-USA Standings), and we all thought UAB was a young team figuring to hover around .500 in conference play.

The Blazers have won six of their last seven, after a tough non-conference slate left them with a 4-9 record heading into January.   But after losing four straight to end December, January has been like a new season of light for the youthful Blazers.

Ranking first in the conference in all three shooting categories, they have also been one of tougher defensive teams during league play as well.

When you talk about shot blocking presences in the league Tosin Mehinti needs to become 1b with LA Tech's Michale Kyser.

The 6'9 Mehinti had 35 blocks last season as a freshman, and is coming off a streak of five straight games where he recorded at least two blocks per game giving him 42 swat sessions on the 2014-15 season.

UAB is also the third youngest team in college basketball, but has built serious depth at the guard spot and pretty much all around their roster.

Robert Brown is one of best all-round offensive players in the conference no one is talking about.  The 6'5 former Virginia Tech transfer is an efficient offensive leader for the Blazers, who can beat you in multiple dimensions from the guard spot with loads of athleticism, and ability to finish in any manner around the rim.

Priding themselves on free throw shooting during this C-USA run, and getting to line frequently, the Blazers have made more free throws than their opponents have attempted in C-USA play.   

Nick Norton was named C-USA Freshman of The Week on Monday after dropping 26 points against Charlotte, and added 12 points against Old Dominion.  The young Blazers have claimed the C-USA Freshman of the Week award in back-to-back weeks with 6'8 forward Chris Cokley earning honors last week.

Norton along with sophomore guard Hakeem Baxter have used UAB's ball screen, and roll offense to get to the free throw line a combined 49 times in C-USA action.

The depth continues for UAB with 2013-14 Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year and 6'9 freshman forward William Lee in the front court, and physically stout guard Denzell Watts who don't have big stats, but both are capable of helping UAB's cause on a nightly basis. 

The Miners have struggled guarding the dribble, particularly screen and rolls which is what UAB does best from the games I have seen.

One name to not forget on the UAB roster is C.J. Washington.  A legit player of the year candidate to open the season now comes off the bench to provide another athletic and dynamic scorer. 

Washington was UAB's leading scorer a year ago and hit a scoring slump once conference play started this season, but scored 10 points in their last outing against Old Dominion and is UAB's most talented, and experienced option.

For UTEP there is a laundry list of issues that plagued the Miners downward spiral over the past weekend, and if I had answers, I wouldn't be here writing this preview.

But two things about this team that are most troubling is the effort in rebounding, and lack of defense were used to seeing out of Tim Floyd's UTEP teams of late. 

UTEP has a -1.3 rebounding margin in conference play, and have only won the rebounding margin once in conference play. 

While Julian Washburn has improved his rebounding numbers throughout the season, a guy like Matt Willms should not be averaging just 3.6 rebounds per game in conference play.

Simple solution to fix the shooting and overall offensive execution woes, get back in the gym and go to work.

UTEP's shot selection has actually been consistency good this year as the Miners have shot 47 percent on the year.

Everyone talks about UTEP not having a true leading scorer, or offensive alpha dog at guard, but this Miner team isn't wired that way.   UTEP is 12-5 when three or more players are in double figures and 4-0 when they have four score in double figures.

Like CTF said at the beginning of the season, there is no option one, two, or three; guys have to start making shots within the offense to open things up, which leads to the issue of UTEP's lack of executing the fine print of the offense.

Inside-out has been UTEP's strength, but when the outside shots are not falling, UTEP seems to give up on going through the blocks, and it creates frustrated mistakes all around IMO.

A team like UAB can afford to pack the lane, and force UTEP to hit jumpers, something that is a weakness for UTEP right now.  Point being, someone has to step up individually to put in the work nightly to be that spark plug, can Earvin Morris retain that title?  Has Omega Harris developed into that guy?

Coach Floyd and his staff have a lot of work to this week to cure UTEP's offensive woes of late, but  is UTEP's lack of a rotation limiting the defensive attack of straight man-to-man, thus opening up teams to chase long offensive rebounds down, and making UTEP look like an average defensive team?

So many questions, but a lot of basketball to be played for the Miners to figure themselves out, but confidence gaining should be a main focus this weekend at home.

This game could be another classic chapter to add into the UTEP-UAB rivalry, the team who can get enough stops, make more free throws, and execute on offense has the edge.

Right now UAB is doing that game in-and-out since the start of conference play, while UTEP is searching to get back to that point.

A-Rod's opening line: UTEP -4.5

Game Information
Who? UAB Blazers at UTEP Miners
Date/Time Thursday, January 29th, 7:00 p.m. Mountain Time
Location Don Haskins Center, El Paso, Texas

CBS Sports Network

Play-by-Play Available on the TuneIn App, or 92.3 FM In El Paso In English, Spanish 1650 AM In El Paso Also available on the TuneIn App.

Series Record UAB leads 8-7