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Rice at UTEP Game Preview: C-USA Play Gets Underway

Time for things to get a little more serious.

The Breakdown

UTEP starts their Conference USA schedule with a Texas Two Step starting with Rice on Friday, and then North Texas rolls into El Paso on Sunday.

To say the start of the 2015-16 season for Rice has been a roller coaster is somewhat of an understatement.

The Owls looked to be a C-USA dark horse in October with a un-Rice-like 2015 recruiting class, and returning two of the top guards in the league, plus a Pac-12 transfer.

But disaster struck before a single regular season minute was logged.

Rice lost their top player in junior guard Marcus Jackson, and highly touted 2015 3-star prospect Chad Lott tore his meniscus as well, thus delivering a big blow to Mike Rhoade's projected depth.

Even with those losses, the Owls have still managed to stay close to .500, coming into to El Paso at 5-7.

Rice boasts the top scoring duo in C-USA with newcomers Egor Koulechov, and Marcus Evans both averaging 19 points per game.

Koulechov, a 6'5 guard and former Arizona State transfer has averaged 23.3 points per game in his last three games.  He was key in Rice's wild upset at New Mexico, scoring 32 points, and shot 6-of-10 from three-point land.

He's also had three points-and-rebound double-doubles this season, coming off a 17 rebound effort in their latest loss to Incarnate Word.

Evans has been named C-USA Freshman of the Week four times this season, also notching a 30 point scoring game this season, and has scored in double figures in all but one game.

Another freshman, Marquez Letcher-Ellis further proves this is not your typical Rice recruiting class.

The 6'7 Houston native is Rice's third leading scorer, but has made a name for himself on the defensive end with his length, and athletic ability.

Letcher-Ellis has actually fouled out in their last three games, but has had six games this year with at least two blocks, and has recorded nine steals in his last four games.

When looking at the Rice-UTEP matchup, Rice's 6'10 center Andrew Drone is the wildcard for unexpected production.

Drone can take up space, and gave UTEP fits last season with his ability to score with back to the basket.  Of course UTEP will look to take away Evans, and Koulechov, but you can't sleep on Drone.

UTEP's biggest challenge will be on the defensive end in guarding a multi-faceted Rice offensive attack.

Rice isn't the most efficient offense numbers wise, but they tend to play at different tempos with different approaches depending on how they come down the floor.

Point guard Max Guercy has 73 assists, and leads a quick strike attack in the open floor, as Rice will also use lots of ball movement, and dribble penetration in the half court as well.  And like last year, they will fire at will from behind the three point line.

Koulechov, Guercy, and Evans will be big concerns due to their ability to drive and finish, but also getting to the free throw line, two areas in where UTEP has struggled defensively.

Those three plus Letcher-Ellis have over 50 free throw attempts on the year, so the Miners growth in guarding the lane, and help defense when someone gets beat off the dribble will be fully tested.

The Miners have steadily improved on attacking zone defenses, something they should see against Rice.

You're starting to see the VCU-esque havoc that Rhoades hopes to become a Rice identity, but the lack of depth could hinder that approach against UTEP and during C-USA play.

They showed how effective it could be against New Mexico, frustrating the Lobos with havoc-like pressure as they used a furious run in the final five minutes to close a 15-point gap, sneaking out of The Pit with one of the biggest upsets in mid-major hoops so far.

Taking care of the ball, and getting into offense will be UTEP's biggest offensive keys.

Dominic Artis has played some his best basketball of the season in the past two games, with the addition of Omega Harris helping him play to his strengths.

But this game could come down to Terry Winn, and Hooper Vint being able to score in the paint, and close out defensive possession with tough rebounds.

Rice averages just under 75 points per game, but is shooting just 43 percent from the field, and 31 from behind the three point line.  This means UTEP will have to rebound, as second chance points via long rebounds will become ways the Owls can wear down UTEP and quiet the Don.

This used to be an automatic win for UTEP, but despite the lack of depth, this Rice team can cause problems, and under Mike Rhoades they play with a different attitude and intensity.

Key Matchups

Max Guercy vs. Dominic Artis

Two of the best point guards in the C-USA Texas sector form the most important matchup of the night.

Artis has not only improved his offensive efficiency, but you can sense more of a defensive pride in the past two games as well.  Arits has pulled in 20 rebounds in his last two games, and while Guercy's numbers and percentages are down from the past two seasons, but we all know he is still a capable guard.

DA probably won't say it, but you know he would like to be labeled as the best point guard in the conference, dominating this matchup with Guercy will further that thought.

Edge: Artis

Andrew Drone vs. Hooper Vint

Vint is coming off his first double-double of the season, and has been pretty consistent on offense for most of the season.  Hoop playing physical defense, and rebounding the hell of it makes this team above average and top-four C-USA contender.

More playing time has slightly spiked Drone's numbers from a year ago, but the matchup of the two tallest players in the Don on Friday will certainly play a factor in the outcome.

Whoever can finish around the rim, and be effective in protecting the rim and take over on the boards on the defensive end will give their team the edge.

Hooper may be realizing he is UTEP's key on the defensive end for a C-USA run, will he turn that consistency corner?

Edge: Push

Marcus Evans vs. Omega Harris

The first two matchups will decide the outcome, but the next two are just going to be flat out fun to watch.

Both Evans and Harris are spark plugs and volume scorers would come become X-Factors in a close game.

Harris has played almost flawless minus a few clock management mistakes in his first four games, and Evans is the front runner for C-USA Freshman of The Year.

Two of the more explosive, and productive guards in the conference will be one of the better matchups we see in the Don this year.

Edge: Push

Marquez Letcher-Ellis vs. Terry Winn

Ah, this one will be fun to watch over the next four years.

Length v. Strength, Athletic Ability v. Sheer Effort, and two players who are important part of each team's efforts in protecting the rim.

Winn is improving his back to the basket game, while Letcher-Ellis has been a sneaky shot blocker who can affect shots from pretty much any angle.

Letcher-Ellis is still trying find his offensive niche, and all Winn needs is a few rolls around the rim to become a legit offensive factor.

Give me a double-double by Terry Winn (if UTEP wins) as he bullies his way around the talented Letcher-Ellis.

Edge: Winn

Miner Rush's Opening Line: UTEP -4.5