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2015 NIT First Round: UTEP at Murray State Game Preview

They won't make a one shining moment appearance, but important postseason basketball is right in front of the Miners.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Just when we thought UTEP's 2014-15 season had come to an abrupt, disappointing end on Friday, the NIT called on Sunday giving us 40 more minutes of hope for a proper ending to the season.

The Miners got the nod as a six seed in the 2015 NIT on Sunday evening, their reward? 

A tough road trip to Murray, Kentucky to face one of the best and now most talked about teams in the nation that was wrongfully and horribly snubbed out of the NCAA Tournament.

"I do think our guys are excited about having the opportunity to put on the UTEP gear again," Tim Floyd said. "It will be difficult, I understand they've got a terrific guard, some other very good players with him and a very nice home court advantage."

Winners of 25 straight since their 93-58 loss to Valparaiso back in late November; Murray State owned the nation's second longest winning streak next to Kentucky before losing to Belmont at the buzzer in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Championship game.

To some, they breezed through the OVC with a 13.8 scoring margin during OVC play, but the battle tested, and well rested Racers had a few close calls along the way to a unbeaten mark in league play, making them even more of tall task.

Led by an impressive starting line, Murray State ranks in the top-30 nationally in scoring offense (10th), field goal percentage (13th), scoring margin (16th), and assist/turnover ratio (28th)

Guard Cameron Payne is UTEP's public enemy number, and is a big part of those gaudy offensive numbers.

Payne is 10th nationally averaging 20.3 points per game, and is 19th nationally in assists averaging 5.8 per contest.

The sophomore is the second fastest player in school history to reach 1,000 points, and finished the regular season and conference tournament slate scoring 20 points or more in their final eight games, and was the OVC Player of the Week five times this season. 

But he also helps on the defensive end as a true defensive pest, recording five career games with five or more steals, including three this season.

Helping solidify Murray's three guard lineup is the team's third leading scorer and senior T.J. Sapp, along with junior Jeffrey Moss.

Sapp, a former Clemson transfer scored 28 points in the OVC championship game loss.  A reliable shooter and distributor will pose match up issues for UTEP on the perimeter along with the other two talented pieces.

The senior guard seems to be a "role" scorer in their attack but has the ability to go off in a big way on any night, and was also named to the 2014-15 OVC preseason team.

The left handed Moss has scored in double figures in 20 games this season, and 42 over his career, adding another very quick perimeter defender that can pick pockets. 

With those three studs manning the guard spots, Murray State's fast paced tempo seems to have a clear advantage over the Miners back court. 

Add in a 30 second shot clock, and move UTEP out a little further from defending around the rim, and the Miner defensive attack just got a little more interesting with the NIT's experimental rules.

Both teams bring opposite styles to table, meaning whoever can execute what they do will win right?

Murray State will literally try to race out and try to score in the 80's where they are 16-0 when scoring more than 80 points this season.

UTEP tries to methodically pick you apart to score in mid-to-high 60's, while defending you with size, and length to keep you under 60 points. 

But UTEP has also shown they can hang in an up-and-down game, sometimes using it to their advantage in stretches with Earvin Morris and THE Vince Hunter who are the Miners' best open court finishers.

To take the point of UTEP not allowing Murray to dictate the pace to reach 80 points a little further, the Racers are 43-3 under head coach Steve Prohm when scoring 80 points in his fourth year at the helm.

UTEP will have a clear size advantage in pretty much any lineup they use against Murray State, but will face a pair of of forwards that fit the mold of others who have gave the Miners trouble under Tim Floyd.

Jarvis Williams is one of those walking double-double and problematic athletic scorers and rebounders. Williams has recorded 25 double-doubles in his career, with coming 11 this season, and he is fourth in school history in rebounds.

Williams goes 6'8, and his rebounding partner and fellow senior Jonathan Fairell goes 6'7, both can rebound the hell out of it using sheer effort and impressive explosion.

Both have each recorded 10 or more rebounds in a game ten times this year, with Williams averaging 15.6 points per game, and shooting 57 percent from most likely around the rim.

Fairell is an important piece for Murray just like Cedrick Lang is to UTEP.  He does all the dirty work for Murray, playing through an injury early on in the season, and will be a tough assignment for UTEP's big's on the glass, and is also an elite post defender. 

UTEP has struggled against smaller, athletic, and more aggressive forwards in C-USA, body-ing up and blocking out will have to be at its finest for the Miners in not allowing second chance points to be a factor.  A team like Murray State can bury you with extra looks, especially if you're playing from behind. 

Murray State has gone with one starting lineup the entire season, and does not have very many scoring options or wrinkles that come off the bench.

One of UTEP's biggest issues this season in important games has been their slow starts on offense.

Murray State has outscored their opponents by a total 247 points in the first half of games this season, and is 20-1 this season when leading at halftime.

This means UTEP's guard play has to come out efficiently firing in the early stages of the game.

UTEP is a true inside-out team, but usually when UTEP's guards are making shots; it opens up the offensive flood gates on both the outside and inside.

Coach Floyd simply said, "I think you have to really rely on who you are at this point."

Xavier scored 56 points in the paint in their earlier match up with Murray State, meaning UTEP may have an easy time scoring in the paint with Lang & Co. but shot making on the perimeter will be just as important. 

Against Middle Tennessee in the C-USA Tournament semifinal, UTEP's guards shot 12/36 from the field, and were 4/14 from deep.  It was great to see Omega Harris emerge, and grow up in an important impactful way during the C-USA Tournament, but now it's the seniors C.J. Cooper and Julian Washburn who have to take their games to another level.

UTEP's tough out of conference schedule seemed to help them sneak into the NIT, but can it also help them focus mentally to beat a team that is equally talented?

Two headline match ups will highlight this game.

Julian Washburn vs. Cameron Payne, then you have Vince Hunter vs. Jarvis Williams.

Talk about four guys who have the potential to get paid playing ball for pretty much the rest of their lives.

If Washburn and Hunter are on offensively, it opens up guys like Earvin Morris to drive or set and shoot, and allows Cedrick Lang to find Hunter on cuts from the high post, or a dump off one of Ced's post moves.

Hunter is an X-Factor for UTEP just like guard play is.

C-USA teams were able to adjust, and sort of slowed down Hunter during conference play.  With both teams having very minimal practice time or preparation time, executing strengths is probably the main harping point for each coaching staff.

And for UTEP, that means getting Hunter going early, but in an efficient way on offense. That could be a key to overcoming the plague that is UTEP's slow starts to games, especially in what will be a hostile environment for the Miners.

"I know that when you win 25 games in a row, it means you're winning a lot of them at home," Floyd said.  "We know that they're going to have a tremendous home court advantage, and that's the nature of the NIT and one of the challenges that it presents."

Murray State has won 14 straight games at home, and a sellout is expected for the first round tilt. 

UTEP and Murray also share four 2014-15 common opponents in Middle Tennessee, Xavier, Western Kentucky, and Alcorn State.  Murray went 3-1 with blowout a loss at the hands of Xavier, while UTEP went 3-2 against those same teams.

Winner gets either Tulsa or William & Mary, but a fun, close match up will either dictate who moves on to the next round, or moves on to next season.

And for the UTEP's seniors and Tim Floyd, one last chance this season to leave a lasting legacy in the hearts of Miner fans.

A-ROD's opening line: Murray State -4.5

Game Information
Who? #6 UTEP Miners vs. #3 Murray State Racers
Date/Time Tuesday, March 17th, 7:00 p.m. Mountain Time
Location CFSB Center, Murray, Kentucky


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All-Time Series Record Murray State leads 2-1