During UTEP's current three-game win streak, there's been a huge X-factor that has been able to lift UTEP out of the dark pits of what once was a 12-game losing streak.
What is it?
UTEP sophomore forward Paul Thomas.
In this nice stretch of win column fillers, Thomas is averaging 15 points per game, 10.7 rebounds per game, and is 18-for-26 from the floor during the modest winning streak. Although Thomas is bringing much more to the table then points, rebounds, and a nice shooting percentage from the floor.
“With another summer of lifting and getting stronger and continuing to work on his skill development which all of our guys do, I think Paul’s got a real chance one day to be a very, very fine player,” Floyd said. “He is making nice plays off the dribble, he is passing the ball for the most part off the dribble. He had a turnover tonight that we didn’t necessarily like off the dribble but he is playing hard. And he is growing, which we had hoped for."
Two marks that haunted Thomas early on in the season was foul trouble, and turnovers. Now, those areas have greatly improved along with his now constant scoring and rebounding outputs.
Thomas has played 112 minutes during the win streak, and has only committed five turnovers. After fouling out in three straight games to end December, Thomas has only fouled out once in the past six games after that frustrating stretch, and is using his fouls in a proper physical manner.
"It definitely feels great, especially coming from last year." Thomas said of his recent emergence. "The whole college experience was a lot different for me, and it took me by surprise."
That eye awakening surprise has led to a mid-season emergence in his sophomore season, much needed for this UTEP team looking for producers not only for this season but also going forward.
"This year I'm in the flow of things, and it's getting kind of easier." Thomas said. "Mentally, we've just got to keep doing us, and keep doing what we do well."
Rebounding is a big jump Thomas has made, something he was never asked to really do in high school, but has been asked to do so here at UTEP. Despite his still growing frame, Thomas has grown a physical chip on his shoulder in where tenacity, will, and heart go into every 50/50 chance for a board.
A huge example of Thomas adapting to the entire D-1 process was in the second half of the UTSA game.
Thomas was backed down in the paint, but recovered for a backside block, and necessary foul. Then on the next three defensive trips, Thomas out battled an opposing player one-on-one for a rebound, going straight up with space due to a nice block out along with improved confidence, strength, and the tenacity needed to rebound at the D-1 level.
"I've been really conscientious of it, just trying to get every board and just chasing it really." Thomas said of his rebounding tenacity. "I really didn't rebound it in high school, and when I got here they told me I was going to have to rebound, so ever since my freshman year it's been instilled in me and I'm finally trying to get to it."
Bringing that physical edge is welcomed, and an identity Thomas can play with along with his impressive statistical output as of late.
So far in conference play, Thomas is grabbing 20.8 percent of UTEP's defensive rebounds, ranking him 10th in the conference according to Ken Pom. He's also fourth in the conference in efficient field goal percentage, and is the third best two-point shot shooter in the conference making 64 percent of attempts during conference play.
Ken Pom has named him game MVP in two of UTEP's three wins during the streak, both games he's recorded double-doubles, and has an offensive rating average of 113.3 which is the 22nd best in C-USA according to Ken Pom's metrics.
No matter where UTEP ends up in the standings during this "down year", the thing most want to see is players like Thomas emerge like he has on a consistent basis.
In December, Thomas took small steps showing this production could one-day explode, and now six games into conference play, the door seems to be kicked in by the talented sophomore.