"Boys win at home, men win on the road."
That’s Tim Floyd's signature saying for playing on the road, but the ole ball coach is taking a realistic approach to UTEP's upcoming two game road swing this weekend.
“You want to win them both [this weekend] but let’s face it, these next five, given our record, we’re going to be the underdog in all five games,” Floyd said. “We’ve got to do a lot of things well to get anywhere, but let’s start with the next one.”
Starting with WKU, the Miners will be faced with a bad on-paper matchup, but the hope is a three-game winning streak has confidence sky high for this tough road trip.
“I do think we played with more confidence in the last ballgame [versus UTSA],” Floyd said. “We weren’t efficient offensively in the second half, but our guys are feeling that they can stop people now, and when you’re doing that I think it helps the well-being of everybody, including the coaches.”
UTEP will face something it hasn't seen in a while when they lineup against WKU which is a physical team with size, and legit talent.
It all starts with former Washington State guard Que Johnson who leads the Tops in scoring. He's taking 25.7 percent of WKU's shots, and has scored in double figures in all but two games this season.
UTEP's toughest cover will be bruising 6'7 forward Justin Johnson who is second on the team in scoring, and one of the top rebounders in the conference. WKU will heavily utilize the pick-and-roll with Que Johnson, and fellow guard Pancake Thomas who owns the sixth highest assist rate in the conference according to Ken Pom.
Justin Johnson is a dangerous diver, and pick-and-pop artist off the pick-and-roll. Anton Waters, Junior Lomomba, Jabari McGhee and Ben Lawson make up a heavy dose of WKU's rotation which will be tricky for the smaller Miner front court players to guard.
WKU's downfall has been the lack of consistent production outside the seven WKU players mentioned, but the collective group of transfers, and an experienced junior forward in Justin Johnson makes this a difficulty match up for UTEP.
“I think that they really shocked a lot of people by who they were able to get,” Floyd said. “A lot of people were scratching their heads saying ‘Good God, they got that guy? Wow, how did they get that guy?’ They put together a roster that gives them a chance to win every night. Justin Johnson is in my top-three favorite players in this league because of how hard he plays and the toughness he plays with. They’ve got shot blocking, they’ve got guards that can score, and they’ve got guards that can pass it. They really did a fine, fine job of assembling some talent there in a short period of time.”
UTEP hopes to ride the momentum of a three game winning streak in where sophomore Paul Thomas has emerged as a consistent producer over the past month or so.
“What we’re watching is the development of a young player,” Floyd said. “He is getting better because of opportunity with the time on the court. The greatest number that he has produced has been the rebounding numbers the last three games. And now he’s scoring and finding out that [rebounding is] a great way to score. We needed that third scorer. Paul has given us that."
While the production of Matt Willms has tapered off significantly over the past few weeks, Thomas has been a welcomed production piece, but will Trey Touchet, and/or Jake Flaggert be the next to improve at a high level?
"We have gotten a little bit from Touchet and Flaggert in terms of having a potential fourth scorer." Floyd said. "And we are still waiting for Matt Willms to really break out like he did in the tournament in Charleston, but that can happen and we can have even further growth.”
Omega Harris continues to produce at a high level, and is averaging 19 points in road games this season and also during conference play. Harris is the first UTEP player to lead the Miners in scoring in five straight games since a guy named Vince Hunter did so back in 2014.
UTEP's defense has also improved as they held six of their last nine opponents to below 38 percent shooting, and currently lead the conference in field goal percentage defense during conference play. Although going up against a bigger, and more talented team than the past three games will serve as a measuring stick of improvement.
Offensively, UTEP has really struggled on the road this year, shooting just 43.7 percent from the field, and has also allowed 72.2 points per game on the road. Opponents have taken 127 free throws to UTEP’s 71, an average of 11.2 more attempts per contest and the Miners have turned it over 21 more times than their opponents (81-60) in road games. They have also been outscored 66-25 in points off turnovers in their three C-USA road games.
It all sort of came together during a three game win streak against equally bad teams at home, but now the level of competition rises once again, and the challenge of a road trip stares a confident, and resurgent UTEP team right in the eyes.
Keys to a UTEP win
- Stay out of foul trouble
- Grab every loose ball/rebound
- Commit no more than 8 turnovers
- Finish in the open floor
UTEP's biggest challenge will be staying out of foul trouble as WKU has the drivers, and ability to live at the free throw line.
The Miners have done a way better job on their help defense via the point-zone UTEP has been playing, but can UTEP adjust if WKU is able to figure that out which has been difficult for opponents to do so far?
In the past few seasons WKU and UTEP have played some epic battles, but if UTEP struggles with foul trouble, and turnovers, this one will get ugly in the Towel Wavers heavy favor.
Miners fight and continue to show flashes of improvement, but WKU's 'Big 3' become factors, exposing UTEP's weaknesses once again.
WKU by 7….