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North Texas at UTEP Game Preview

UTEP v. North Texas tips off at 7:00 p.m. Mountain, Thursday night in the Don Haskins Center.

One of the more interesting match ups across the C-USA weekend docket takes place Thursday in the Don between North Texas and UTEP.

For Texas basketball historians, North Texas hasn't played a basketball game in El Paso since the early sixties, as the new look C-USA continues to break geographic barriers of sorts.

But getting back 2015, both North Texas and UTEP are more importantly vying for respectable seeds in the upcoming C-USA tournament.

Coach Tim Floyd

"We hope to finish it up strong.  We would have loved to win the Louisiana Tech game and we didn't get it done.  I put coach [Phil] Johnson in a very difficult situation on Saturday and it didn't work out.  We're going to be a better team as a result of this."

"We're going to come back home and hopefully have a great week and finish this thing where we need to be.  I know this much, had we won at Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss, there would be a banner hanging up there for Conference USA [champions].  That's great. But at the end of the day, we probably would not have been in the NCAA Tournament. We're going to have to win the tournament anyway.  That's what this week is about, trying to play a little better."

Both teams had made positive upward strides in the past couple of weeks, but its been North Texas who has made the huge standings jump.

North Texas can finish anywhere between a six and an eleven seed, but with the way they are playing lately, the Mean Green won't be an easy out for anyone as expected after their early OOC win against Creighton.

Jordan Williams is a C-USA all-conference candidate and is averaging 16.4 points per game during C-USA play.

Williams was a key producer during their recent five game win streak and has averaged 18.5 per points per game in his last eleven games, although has historically struggled when matched up against Julian Washburn.

Another key producer as of late for the Mean Green is my C-USA Freshman of the Year Candidate Jeremy Combs.

Along with Williams, Combs has helped North Texas become a more efficient inside-out offensive team, and also helps clean up around the boards. 

Combs is shooting 56 percent on the season, and tied a season high with 13 rebounds twice during conference play.

The Achilles heel for North Texas all year has been the lack of a true point guard leading to a turnover issue, but lately T.J. Taylor and Deandre Harris have provided steady guard play through their win streak.

Harris of course dropped 20 points in the earlier match up with UTEP, a streaky shooter; Harris is most effective when he is getting to the free throw line. 

Meanwhile Taylor has been on a tear lately, shooting over 45 percent in four of their last six games, but was forced into four turnovers against Old Dominion as North Texas had a rough going as a team on the offensive side in the second half of that game.

Floyd on North Texas

"North Texas has won five of their last six.  They are a completely different team than we saw early.  They didn't play one second of man-to-man defense against us, but now they are a man-to-man team.  And they are playing it very well.  I really like what they're doing offensively sharing the ball.  They're getting a lot of post-ups that they didn't get early in the year and they're doing some nice things."

North Texas has also been seeing increased production from match up problem forward Colin Voss.

Voss put together a very impressive inside-out game against ODU after going a combined 4/17 against FIU and Charlotte.   He rates among the best in school history in assist to turnover over ratio, and has a streak of 22 straight free throws made since February 14th.

Two statistical improvements jumped out at me when comparing the Mean Green's winning streak to before the streak.

During the win streak, North Texas had a +3.6 rebounding margin compared to the -0.8 before, and they also went from 14.5 turnovers per game to 10.0 per game during the win streak.

Those numbers have helped improve their offensive efficiency by almost five points per game to go along with their tough defensive schemes.

UTEP will see zone 80% or more in this one, North Texas is second in the C-USA in forcing 13.5 turnovers per game, and is fourth in conference in defensive field goal percentage holding teams to an identical 41 percent like UTEP also does.

The Miners will have execute in the half court unlike the final 11:14 against Southern Miss. in which taking care of the ball, and being patient to find a quality look will be keys on the offensive end.

Vince Hunter is a guy UTEP needs to come through more efficiently on the offensive end to break down the North Texas zone, and for the sake of the upcoming C-USA Tournament run.

Hunter has had more turnovers (15) than field goals (11) and free throw attempts (12) in his past four games, though still continues to be a factor on the boards, but his erratic offensive play seems to kill any momentum UTEP builds.

UTEP's guard play went from being an identity of strength to a sore thumb issue again in a matter of two games.

C.J. Cooper is 4 out his last 16 from the field, and has nine turnovers is his last three games. Cooper only had three turnovers in the previous five games. 

UTEP went away from the inside-out game in the second half against Southern Miss. which had been a staple of success in the seven game win streak, thus leading to the second half meltdown.

Cedrick Lang is playing his heart out, but doesn't get any love from the zebras (all year) and has fouled out in four straight games.

The return of Matt Willms gave UTEP a boost on the boards Saturday as Willms pitched in nine rebounds, if him and Hooper Vint can find a some consistency in their minutes, UTEP will become that much more better on the defensive end as well as hard to beat next week.

UTEP's biggest mission this week is finding that confidence, and smothering defense that lead to offensive flow during the seven game win streak.

Allowing North Texas to hang around from behind the three point line is the only issue I can see North Texas constantly giving UTEP on the defensive end, while careless turnovers and rushed shots on the offensive end will lead to a bunch of nervous UTEP fans in the Don.

After two ugly losses, the mental confidence of this UTEP team should be the biggest concern, but with two "winnable" games this weekend, two wins could cure the lack of confidence and fire this team needs to be restored before next week's tourney.

A-ROD's opening line: UTEP -11.5