After eight straight losses, a dark Christmas break, and a few practices the UTEP basketball team returns to action Friday evening in Las Cruces for Round 2 of the Battle of I-10.
“Everybody has had a break,” Floyd said. “They have had a break, we have had a break. I know that we probably needed it. We regrouped, we came back energized. Our guys have practiced well for a couple of days. We had one little setback with Jake Flaggert breaking his nose in the Irvine game. It’s our third broken nose of the year [Ivan Venegas and Matt Willms are the others]. We’ll hope that he’s able to play through that. He has probably led the nation in charges attempted. He’s always on the floor, always picking himself up off the floor, he’s a tough kid and we’re sure that he’ll try to play over there.”
NMSU has won 10 straight in Paul Weir’s first year as head coach, and is a 91% favorite against the Miners in Round 2 according to Ken Pom. It marks just the second time in 15 years UTEP and NMSU have played after Christmas.
The Aggies continue to get elite production from Ian Baker, Jemerrio Jones, and Braxton Huggins, and score 23 percent of their points from the free throw line which ranks 42nd overall in the Ken Pom ratings.
“Their guards is where you start,” Floyd said. “[Braxton] Huggins and [Ian] Baker are outstanding. That’s not all they have. Their inside guys, [Eli] Chuha is doing a really nice job for them in his first year as a starter. They gave us problems with their length and size and their athleticism. I thought they were better than us in all areas the first time we played.”
Jones punished UTEP with 18 points, and 13 rebounds in the first meeting, and followed that up with a 23 point, and 18 rebound effort against UC Irvine on December 19th.
UTEP continues to battle through adversity as Jake Flaggert was fitted for a mask for his broken nose, while Matt Willms continues to improve health wise. Willms was solid against Maryland Eastern Shore with 16 points, and seven rebounds, and is in the top-150 nationally in efficient field goal percentage.
“Matt is practicing throughout the entire practice now for the first time,” he said. “We did that for two days prior to the [Sun Bowl] tournament and I thought it helped him. We’re just at a point where we’ve got to go one way or the other. He seems to have been able to withstand the rigors of two hard practices since we got back, and I trust that he’s going to be able to go over there and play maybe at a higher level than what he played earlier in the season.”
Dominic Artis has continued his steady play despite the losing streak. Artis ranks 20th nationally in assist rate, and leads UTEP in rebounds, assists, and steals.
“You like that,” Floyd said. “As a senior he should, and as a point guard he should. They are the guys that should take responsibility in losses and give credit to others in wins. I don’t think that’s necessarily fair. That’s the way NFL quarterbacks do it. But he’s a good kid, he’s trying hard. I have been really pleased with his makeup, who he is every day when he comes in to work, and I think he’s playing good basketball.”
Omega Harris has also had a nice stretch as of late, averaging 18.6 points in his last five games, and is 13-for-28 from 3-point land in the same five game stretch.
UTEP’s main issue all season is finding scoring production outside of Artis, Harris, and a healthy Matt Willms, but against the Aggies UTEP will need a full effort from their main producers and role players.
Three UTEP keys to compete
Keep NMSU off the offensive glass
NMSU is one of the top teams nationally in offensive rebounding percentage according to Ken Pom, and Jemerrio Jones, and Eli Chuha are big reasons. UTEP’s big men will be challenged with closing potential defensive stops with defensive boards. Aggie second chance points will continually punish the struggling Miners.
Get Omega and Deon Barrett open
If, and when Deon Barrett and Omega Harris have huge nights in the same game, UTEP could find a way to end this losing skid. Barrett played like a seasoned vet in his first career road game at New Mexico, and Harris is proving himself to be UTEP’s top offensive option. Together, they can pick apart the NMSU defense from deep.
Continue with the ‘point zone’
Floyd’s defensive MO is to take out the other team’s top scorer, but the Miners do not possess a stopper who can try to take out Huggins or Baker. UTEP showed some defensive improvement with the ‘point zone’ against a ball movement oriented attack like UC Irvine which is kind of similar to NMSU’s heavy ball movement approach. Rebounding out of it could be an issue, but if UTEP can force turnovers like they did against UC Irvine they have a chance against an NMSU squad that has struggled with turnover issues in some stretches this season.
I’ll go out on a limb and say we will see another improved defensive effort from the Miners, but not sure if it will be enough to slow down a very good, and peaking NMSU squad.
Harris, and Artis should have big games again like in Round 1, but others have to arise in a big way for UTEP to pull off what would be considered a huge upset.
NMSU by 12…..