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UTEP at Middle Tennessee Game Preview: Miners face daunting C-USA road swing

Middle Tennessee knocked UTEP out of the C-USA tourney a year ago, now two 2016 contenders face off early in conference play.

Gearing up for their toughest road trip of the season, UTEP starts off their two game southern road swing at Middle Tennessee on Thursday evening.

UTEP has played well in their last four games, but going up against the upper echelon teams in Conference USA this weekend will test UTEP's growth over the past couple of weeks.

Are the Miners ready?

"We'll find out because we're going to play some really quality players," Tim Floyd said.  "Giddy Potts is in the top of the league in a couple of categories.  He's a very good player.  Darnell Harris is a guy that was kind of an afterthought a year ago behind the Upshaw kid, who is terrific.  And Harris' numbers may be even better than Upshaw's right now.  They're both 6-7.  Both can step out and shoot the three.  It presents real problems for Hooper Vint and some of our big guys in terms of coverage."

Potts is expected to return to the lineup after missing the past four games due to academic issues that have since been cleared up.

He will be the most efficient scoring guard UTEP will see this year, shooting more than 50 percent from the field in seven of the nine games he has played this year.

Without Potts, the Blue Raiders have lost three of their last four, but Reggie Upshaw has seen an increase in his production in Potts' absence.

The versatile 6'7 wing is averaging 26.6 points per game in last two games, and is 20-of-28 from the field in his last two games.  Shooting right at 50 percent with a 10-of-20 mark from behind the three point line on the season, Upshaw's ability to drive, and finish at the rim is the biggest UTEP cause for concern.

Senior Darnell Harris is another important part of the Blue Raiders offensive attack.

He's had five games this year in where he was made at least three, three pointers, and is an important rebounder alongside fellow forward Perrin Buford. Both average five rebounds per game, pacing a Blue Raider team who is ranked in the top-40 in the nation in defensive rebounding.

Defensively, a Kermit Davis vs. Tim Floyd coaching matchup is always fun to watch each trip up the floor.

Middle's bread and butter on defense is a trapping 1-3-1 which will surely be used in slowing down UTEP's guards, but in the past, both Davis and Floyd have thrown the kitchen sink at each other on the defensive end.

Since their C-USA inception, Middle Tennessee has the reputation of being one of the tougher defensive teams, who can wear you with their rebounding if you're not making shots.

"You worry about playing great defensive teams at home, which we will with Middle Tennessee."  Floyd said. "They do a fabulous job of guarding.  They'll throw a lot of different packages at us.  1-3-1, 2-3, terrific man-to-man defense and they'll try to keep our guys on their heels.  They'll have a good crowd and a lot of pressure.  We'll have a new group out there trying to figure it out.  At the end of the day it's going to come down to defending and rebounding."

For UTEP, the continued production from Hooper Vint and Terry Winn will be a must in this one, but the health of Earvin Morris maybe just as important in giving UTEP an extra depth factor.

Morris has been slowed up by what Coach Floyd calls a Charley Horse, and a strained groin which has decreased Morris's minutes in the past two games.  Morris won a 2012 state championship in the Murphy Center, something that could fuel a spirited comeback effort in his home state.

Omega Harris, and Dominic Artis have been putting up some pretty productive numbers on the offensive end lately, but their work on the defensive end has been key in the past two games in executing UTEP's 60X2 defensive game plan.

The biggest question for UTEP is how do they matchup against a versatile, much bigger, and physical Middle Tennessee front court.

UTEP has been an exclusive man-to-man team as of late, showing small segments of multiple defenses, but against elite drivers and finishers like Potts, Upshaw, Harris, and Buford, one would bet Floyd has some defensive tricks up his sleeve.

Four to watch

Lee Moore, UTEP

Moore has been a quiet producer over the past two games, with the aspect of getting to the free throw line a developing habit.  In the last two games, Moore has scored 30 points, with 11 rebounds, and has been at the free throw line 18 times as well.  And oh yeah, he's also dished out 12 assists.  UTEP's clutch performer in the final minutes of close games this season has hit a positive stride after a rough shooting stretch.   Look for Moore to continue to be aggressive as he has thrived as UTEP's secondary or third main ball handler.

Giddy Potts, Middle Tennessee

He's either going to come out red hot, or rusty after missing four games, but Potts appears to be the heart and soul of the Blue Raiders attack.  Scoring is always nice, and is what Potts can deliver, but Potts' most impressive stat line of the season was his 14 rebound game against Southern Alabama.  Potts also leads the Blue Raiders in rebounding.   With MTSU holding a big matchup edge on the offensive side, look for Potts to be a distributor in looking for Upshaw and Harris in the paint or on the perimeter via his dribble drive, and course he can always get his points.

Terry Winn, UTEP

This matchup will certainly be a test in how far UTEP's talented freshman forward has come along.  You figure he will get a nice dosage of either Harris or Upshaw, pitting Winn up against the two most versatile, and physical wings he was gone up against in his young college career.  Winn won't be scared or shy away from anything physical, but how effective can he be by not getting in foul trouble, and finishing around the rim will be key for a UTEP win.

Reggie Upshaw, MTSU

A year ago, Reggie Upshaw was the only Blue Raider who was close to averaging 10 points per game, now Middle has three averaging 10 points or more with Upshaw increasing his average to 14.4 ppg this season.  Terry Winn can't guard both Harris and Upshaw at the same time, so keeping Upshaw in check could become a huge issue for UTEP.

Who has the edge?

Rebounding: Middle Tennessee

Scoring: Even

Shooting: Even

Guard play: UTEP

Front court: Middle Tennessee

Defense: Middle Tennessee

Intangibles: Even

Miner Rush's opening line: MTSU -7.5