Looking to end a three game home stand with a three game winning streak during this current C-USA home stand, UTEP returns to action after a few days off to face UTSA Saturday night.
UTSA has been a nice surprise under first year head coach Steve Henson. The Runners are off to a 4-1 start in C-USA play, and knocked off LA Tech on the road snapping a lengthy road losing streak back on January 7th.
“They are playing well,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “[Coach Henson] has done a great job. They’re a really terrific rebounding team. They are very good defensively. That is where they have made their biggest improvement. They have added personnel, which always helps.”
UTSA is second in C-USA in three-point field goal defense (.322), third in rebound margin (+5.1 rpg), and fourth in scoring defense (68.2 ppg) and field goal percentage defense (.415). They are also ranked 61st in the nation in effective defensive field goal percentage according to Ken Pom.
“They’ve got an outstanding player [Beverly] who’s playing at a first team All-League level right now,” Floyd said. “They’ve got a point guard Giovanni De Nicolao that is emerging as a very good player. It’s a good team. They thoroughly whipped us in the last ballgame. We had a hard time scoring and we’re going to hope for improvement.”
Beverly is certainly an all-C-USA candidate, and dropped 27 points on LA Tech in their road win. He's averaged 24.3 points per game in his last three games, and is a high volume offensive producer who takes 39.9 percent of UTSA's shot attempts during conference play.
UTEP held Beverly to just five points in the first meeting, but Beverly rebounded from that tough week and has been outstanding ever-since.
UTSA lost a productive guard in Nick Billingsley who was dismissed due to academics, but De Nicolao has stepped up in a big way since his departure.
De Nicolao scored in double figures in four straight games, notching a career high 19 points against Southern Miss. He isn't an efficient shooter going just 33 percent on his two-point attempts, but is a pesky defender, and crafty scorer.
One of the biggest takeaways in UTEP's weekend sweep of the Florida schools was the emergence of sophomore forward Paul Thomas.
Thomas, a former four-star recruit, has played to that potential as of late, and is averaging 11.4 points, and 7.2 rebounds, all while shooting over 60 percent from the field during conference play.
“Paul has been our most improved player this year,” Floyd said. “He has just gotten better. He is playing with confidence. He’s not turning the ball over. He is starting to rebound it a little bit. He is finishing shots around the basket that he didn’t finish earlier. He is gaining some confidence from 15 feet.”
Finishing around the rim was a big improvement mark for Thomas, meshing with his ability to stretch defenses with his 14-18 foot jumper which is becoming more effective.
Omega Harris continue his strong play, averaging 21.8 points in his last three games, along with Dominic Artis who is certainly UTEP's top defensive rebounder. He ranks 20th in C-USA in defensive rebounding percentage, and is third in the conference in assist rate.
“His biggest strength has been his defensive rebounding all year long,” Floyd said of Artis. “We would love to see him shoot the ball from the three and from the two and create plays for others in order to move this team forward. We’re going to play off of him. The ball is in his hands an awful lot. You have to have great decision-making and sometimes you have to defer. I trust that he’s going to play well the second half of the year.”
UTEP's next stretch features a combined 24-8 record for their next six opponents, which will certainly test how this team has grown from a 12-game losing streak, and a chance at three straight wins during a crucial portion of the C-USA schedule.
Keys to a UTEP win
- Artis hitting shots
- Big game from Matt Willms
- Minimal turnovers
- Control the defensive rebounds
UTSA is rolling, and despite playing a relatively easy C-USA slate, all they've done is take care of business. Really like what Steve Henson is doing over there, and I'm sure this is a big bulletin board game for his team.
Artis and Harris give UTEP a chance, but can they take out Beverly for the second straight matchup, and who else's steps up?
UTEP fights, but UTSA is playing like a well-oiled machine of smart defensive basketball.
UTSA by 7…..