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Northwestern State at UTEP Game Preview

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NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Texas-El Paso Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

After one of the worst weeks involving bad news in UTEP's basketball history, it's back to the playing floor after a long layoff for the UTEP Miners.

UTEP returns to the floor Saturday night to face the 3-4 Northwestern State Demons out of the Southland Conference.

The Demons have played a challenging schedule thus far with road games at Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Missouri, and most recently Mississippi State.

A common opponent with UTEP, Mississippi State and Northwestern State traded the lead eight times, and a late Bulldog run in the final two minutes helped them escape an upset.

A 1,559 mile Thanksgiving road trip covered six days' worth of traveling, then they overcame a double digit deficit to top LSU Shreveport in their latest game at home.

88 percent of their scoring from last season returns, but the Demons have struggled with their shooting percentages so far this season.

They are shooting just 39 percent collectively as a team from the floor, and 33 percent from behind the three point line on the young season.

6'2 guard Zeek Woodley is leading the team averaging 18.7 points per game, and went off against Mississippi State for 28 points including five made 3-pointers. Woodley is shooting right at 50 percent on the season and will be the player Tim Floyd looks to take out defensively.

6'8 big man Ishmael Lane is the other player that scores in double figures for Northwestern State. Lane was rated as one of the top 64 freshman from College Court Report last season, and is averaging 11 points per game all from inside the paint this year.

Northwestern State is one of the few teams that won't tower over UTEP this year, but the Miners' newest weakness of having a lack of adequate depth, particularly in the front court will be tested.

With Terry Winn departed, and Omega Harris out, UTEP will look for new producers this weekend.

Paul Thomas will see extended minutes, and will probably asked to score more along with the consistent rebounding marks he has provided so far this season.

Jake Flaggert is another role player who will be thrusted into big minutes with Winn packing his gear for UTRGV. His 3-point shooting will desperately be needed, and there will be a major need for him to possibly play 25 or more minutes.

At the guard spot, Trey Touchet, and Deon Barrett will also see their name called more often, and with Harris out, both will need to help Dominic Artis score, and distribute for the Miners big men.

Artis is still on pace for an all-conference type year averaging 15.6 points, and 6.8 rebounds, and 7.2 assists in UTEP's first five games of the season. You have to wonder if his shot attempts also go up without Harris.

One of UTEP's lingering questions for the season is the health of Matt Willms. Tim Floyd said UTEP used their nine day layoff to rest Willms who had a full week of rest before returning to the practice floor on Thursday.

For UTEP to remain competitive after a drama-filled week that aspect relies on the health of Willms who makes this UTEP team better on both ends when he is 100% health wise.

With so much going on off the court, UTEP will try to piece together their on the court issues in another out of conference tune up.

Three things we're watching

Which guard steps up?

Is it Barrett? Touchet? Both? Or does a freshman outta nowhere steps to the plate and delivers? No matter who it is, UTEP needs a guard to step up in Omega Harris' absence, and could give UTEP another possible scoring option down the road. Touchet is the most likely candidate, but Barrett continues to gain confidence with minutes. UTEP's other freshmen Tim Cameron, Chris Barnes, and Adrian Moore could also see some important minutes on Saturday.

How improved is UTEP's defense after the nine day layoff?

After taking big strides defensively in the Charleston Classic, all that work went out the window in the embarrassing loss to Southeastern Louisiana the last time out. Another area on how can UTEP move on without Terry Winn and compete is by the Miners playing tough defense the rest of the way. Tim Floyd prides his style and identities on defense, can this group finally breakthrough?

How much energy and fire will UTEP bring?

One of the best remedies to a forgettable week is getting back to playing games, but has the damage been done with this young group, or do they come out with a fire to prove everyone wrong? Artis has played with a chip on his shoulder all season, and on Saturday it's his team, literally. Coach Floyd has a steep challenge the rest of the way, one of those challenges is can the ole' ball coach round up a team he has basically said is a bad, rebuilding basketball team.

Prediction

I feel UTEP will come out with fire and energy, but is there enough firepower for 40 minutes to pull off a win?

It's hard to tell outside of Artis, but this could be a close game that could either pull this UTEP team together, or be another hard lesson learned via a loss.

UTEP fights, but comes up empty when they need points.

Northwestern State by 6…..