UTEP and New Mexico hook back up after a long hiatus and resume a rivalry that was once very special in these parts of the country.
“I think it’s a game that means a great deal to a lot of El Pasoans,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We were travel partners up and down those Rocky mountains for 80 years. So many great memories. I think our facilities, I think our coaching history here, and the great players that have played at our institutions reflect each other. I think the academics at the schools reflect each other.”
Times have changed as UTEP comes in reeling, losers of three straight along with two players in the past two weeks with off-court headlines garnering more attention that what is taking place on the floor.
UTEP goes on the road for the first time this year in a true road game setting and will have two needed weapons back against the Lobos.
Matt Willms was fitted for mask to protect his broken nose, and has been cleared to play along with junior sparkplug Omega Harris who returns from a one-game suspension. Both will be needed for UTEP just to compete and keep the game competitive.
“He got fitted for a mask yesterday,” Floyd said of Willms. “The perfect mask will take two weeks to get here. He’s going to look like the guys used to look 25 years ago with one of those old baseball catchers masks, but he’s going to try to play with a broken mask and a broken nose, and he’s going to give it the old college try tomorrow. He hasn’t practiced, he still has not practiced since Charleston. I love the kid. He has basically averaged 14 [points] and six [rebounds] playing about 19 minutes a game. He’s got a lot of talent.”
Willms comes in shooting 65 percent from the field on the season, and has also blocked nine shots which leads the team.
Harris' absence clearly hurt UTEP against Northwestern State, but the junior comes in averaging 15.6 points per game, and his presence should provide an offensive spark despite some shooting struggles in his last ball game.
Dominic Artis had a rough outing against Northwestern State turning the ball over seven times, although UTEP turned the ball over a season low 12 times in their latest loss.
After a nice offensive start in their first three games, UTEP is averaging just 59 points per game, and shooting just 38 percent from the field, and 27 percent from 3-point land during this three game losing skid.
Tim Floyd has repeatedly admitted to the shortcomings on this year's roster, and knows what his team is up against on Wednesday night.
“Craig has one of those old visible jobs where they love ball like we do. That’s why we’re such a great fit to continue to play,” Floyd said. “I think they’re an athletic group. They are a lot more athletic than we are right now. We’re not a very athletic team right now. They’ve got a couple of guys who go get the ball in the basket on a regular basis and that’s really not who we are right now. They’ve got a little length that we don’t have right now, 6-11 and 6-8, that are shot blockers and active guys. I think we all know the history in the Pit. They have won 80 percent of their games in that arena. They have a beautiful fan base and we’ll look forward to the experience.”
UTEP dodged a huge matchup bullet as New Mexico forward Tim Williams will miss Wednesday's game due to a concussion.
The Lobos return all-world guard Elijah Brown who was first team All-Mountain West last year and averaged 21.7 points per game via some eye popping offensive outputs. His father is Mike Brown who is an assistant coach on the Golden State Warriors.
Brown has only scored 20 points or more twice this year, 21 coming in their last game a 79-74 loss at Illinois State in where he was 3-for-11 from 3-point land. Whoever draws Brown will have their hands full, as Brown is the guy UTEP will try to X-out on the defensive end.
Another guy UTEP could have trouble matching up with is 6'7 athletic swingman Sam Longwood. Longwood's length will be tough for UTEP to match on both ends of the floor, he also averages 9.4 points per game.
If you remember, the last time UTEP and New Mexico met, tempers got out of hand due to a pregame shootout around issue, but both coaches have said this week its water under the bridge. UTEP and New Mexico signed a two-year home-and-home deal, with more games possible in the future.
“Craig and I were good friends before that incident,” Floyd said. “Craig was not really a part of that incident, although he was working there at the time. I think that cooler heads have prevailed. I think we both recognize that this is a series that’s very important to our fans. We’re really appreciative that it’s back on the table. I know a lot of people from both administrations worked on it. I’ve always said that there are certain series that coaches should not be allowed to schedule. The fans, the stockholders, should be allowed to schedule and this is one of those because our histories are too deep.”
UTEP will be outmatched on paper for most of their games the rest of the season.
Defense is the Miners key to keeping things close. If they fall behind, things will get ugly all season long as this UTEP team has yet to prove they can play from behind even against low-major opponents.
Harris will be on a mission, and should have a nice game, but who else steps up is the question.
Lobos by 15…