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UTEP Basketball: Three things we’re closely watching in the Miners first exhibition

NCAA Basketball: Texas-El Paso at Rice Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

UTEP opens their exhibition slate Saturday afternoon against Sul Ross State which features a pair of El Pasoans on their 2017-18 roster.

So many questions will be answered over the next couple of weeks, but we look at three major things to keep an eye on Saturday afternoon against Sul Ross.

All eyes on Tirus Smith’s minutes, and production.

With Kelvin Jones sudden departure, UTEP’s depth off the bench this season will be relied upon from the freshman from Mississippi. From what I’ve seen from Smith, he could simply shred Sul Ross and look like a bonafide stud in this exhibition.

“That's life in college basketball. It's where it is right now," Floyd said of Jones' departure. "We have a young guy in Tirus Smith that will fill the role of Kelvin a year ago. We wouldn't have brought him here if we didn't think he was a good player. He's going to have an expanded role. It will be great for him. We know that he's going to be a very, very good player before he leaves here. He's much further ahead from where Paul Thomas was when he came here as a freshman. He's going to have an expanded opportunity."

Expanded opportunity could mean major minutes Saturday for the freshman who had SEC offers at one point, and could become UTEP’s best newcomers this season, providing UTEP with size and skill at the power forward and center spot.

Smith played 27 minutes in the Orange & White Scrimmage, scoring 15 points with six rebounds in 27 minutes.

"It's tough that [Kelvin's] gone. But I've got to look at it as an opportunity for myself to come in and make a contribution to the team," Smith said. "I've been working real hard. Coming in, I knew that conditioning was going to be something that I had to work on the hardest. Coach Floyd came to me and said if I'm going to be successful and make money doing this, I'm going to have to go hard and work and get in shape. That's what I came back and did. In my extra time, I run. I treat it like a job now. I have to run and take care of my body."

Point guard shuffle

Evan Gilyard had a solid showing in the Orange and White scrimmage, and the coaches have been high on Kobe Magee, but Saturday offers their first crack at a different opponent under the bright lights of the Haskins Center.

“We'll see how the new guys respond to the challenges that the game presents, and doing it with the lights on and the officials.” Floyd said. “We're interested in how our two young freshmen guards [Evan Gilyard and Kobe Magee] will play. We'll play Isiah Osborne some at the point and see how he handles that. He wasn't recruited to be a point here, but he gives us some versatility."

Osbourne was a pleasant scoring surprise during the Costa Rice exhibition tour, and his versatility could become a huge plus in certain lineups with him at point guard.

Taking care of the ball, and creating for others will be major points for the freshmen in this point guard position battle.

Can UTEP defensively shut down a weaker opponent?

One of the knocks on Tim Floyd’s teams is they usually start the season slow, but if the Miners defense is up to par that could change things this year.

UTEP normally struggles early on during the exhibition season with defensive communication lapses due to Floyd’s rapid lineup changes, but this current UTEP team is more athletic than recent teams and should be able to frustrate Sul Ross into low shooting percentages and even scoring with sheer effort.

"Defense. All defense this week for sure," Paul Thomas said. "That was the biggest thing we saw on film. Guys getting fatigued, getting used to playing up and down. So we're just working through the defensive things and executing the offense without turnovers."

Sul Ross tidbits

Sul Ross State was 13-13 last season. The Division III Lobos return all three players with double-figure scoring averages from a year ago – senior forward Caleb Thomasson (19.8 ppg), senior guard C.J. Ross (11.6 ppg) and junior forward Brock Anders (11.2 ppg). Sul Ross State has two players from El Paso on the roster in freshman guard Tristen Licon (Americas HS) and junior forward Steven Savedra (Del Valle HS).