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UTEP Basketball: 2017-18 Season Preview

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

UTEP men’s hoops opens the 2017-18 season this Friday against Louisiana College.

With a key core of returners and six newcomers, UTEP appears to be a team to keep an eye on in the C-USA race, but can this program finally turn a championship corner under Tim Floyd?

The easy answer is no, temper your expectations, but take a look at the product UTEP is developing this season…

The guards

UTEP’s main overall strength will be at the guard spot, particularly the two-guard spot.

Omega Harris returns as one of the conferences most consistent and explosive scorers, along with former McDonalds All-American and grad transfer Keith Frazier.

Harris has improved his scoring averages and shooting percentage each year, and the sky could be the limit for the preseason All-C-USA selection.

The area Harris might make the big jump is in the assists, and facilitating department as teams will game plan to slow down O, making his teammates valuable parts of his success as a senior.

Frazier had a nice showing in UTEP’s final exhibition, and that type of production will solidify UTEP’s guard depth.

UTEP will also have young, but talented and lengthy wings like Isiah Osbourne and Trey Wade who will upgrade UTEP’s athleticism on the wings.

Osbourne is a smooth shooter who has a unique knack of getting to the basket, and has a quick release jumper from long distance.

Wade could become a very special player at some point in his UTEP career.

Wade has shown in the gym range, and has the length and athleticism to make a defensive impact. His defense might not be there yet, but his confidence in scoring has been sky high so far.

Can’t forget about UTEP’s seasoned veterans Trey Touchet and Jake Flaggert.

Both have seen a heavy share of minutes over the past few seasons, and that shouldn’t change much this season. Flaggert led the world in drawn charges, and Touchet started to improve his overall offensive game over the latter part of the season.

This group should be a strong shooting group if Flaggert and Touchet can make a high percentage of their looks this season.

Now UTEP’s biggest question will be at point guard.

Replacing Dominic Artis’ tremendous production will be difficult, but UTEP has a pair of freshman point guards who will have a shot to make an impact.

Both Kobe Magee and Evan Gilyard have shown freshman moments during the Costa Rica tour, and recent exhibitions. Both have also shown their play making genes and shooting ability as factors that can help this team right away.

The Big Men

The loss of Kelvin Jones will certainly hurt against certain matchups, but UTEP has some talent that carry the load, just not the depth the Miners shoudla, coulda, woulda had with Jones and Joey St. Pierre.

It all starts with Matt Willms who will be a focal point of UTEP’s post touches this season.

Coming off his best statistical season as a Miner, Willms had a full off season and appears healthy for what should be a strong senior campaign.

Willms shot nearly 60 percent from the floor last season, and will be another game plan mark opposing teams will have to account for. So far in two exhibitions Willms is 14-for-17 from the floor, and looks to be in great physical shape.

Paul Thomas was UTEP’s most improved player last season, and the Houston native will have a bigger role in terms of impact, scoring, and playmaking.

Thomas has shown off a newly found shooting range which will make him tougher to guard, and adds to his versatility.

An intriguing name and prospect will replace Kelvin Jones’ minutes in 6’9 freshman Tirus Smith.

Smith has battled foul trouble and officials in his first two exhibitions, but he also shown why he had SEC offers. A sneaky athlete around the basket, Smith will be a key in UTEP getting buckets down low, and he can step out and shoot if need be.

Getting in game shape will be Smith’s biggest obstacle in his freshman season. He also catches everything, and can really fill it up from inside the paint.

Managing foul trouble could be an early issue with this group, and while UTEP lacks the depth they had down low just a few weeks ago. These three are talented pieces UTEP can build on despite not having depth behind them.

The Newcomers

UTEP has six new comers who will be in the rotation and will be asked and relied upon for immediate production.

Starting with Keith Frazier who appears to be a starter and guy who will handle the ball at times. The key for Frazier will be his health as he’s struggled to say on the floor for an entire season since his freshman year at SMU.

A healthy Keith Frazier can provide some major production and matchup problems down the road.

Isiah Osbourne will be another name Floyd could rely upon early for offensive production. Osbourne could also play at little point guard, giving UTEP matchup depth and flexibility to play with certain lineups with Osbourne at the point.

It may not happen this year, but at some point down the road of his career, Trey Wade will be a star.

The 6’6 guard from Georgia appears to be able to do it all, and his impact could come right away as it has since UTEP starting practice for Costa Rica back in August.

UTEP’s two freshman point guards will also get their chances at making impacts, and their stardom’s will also come along at one point in the near future.

Gilyard and Magee could make an immediate impact with their shooting ability, but their playmaking and passing skills will be ways to etch them more minutes, and trust at the point.

UTEP will need to recruit big men in this next cycle to compliment a still improving Tirus Smith. Staying out of foul trouble and getting in tip top physical shape will be a key to his freshman year success.

The Schedule

UTEP’s 2017-18 schedule isn’t sexy, but it’s respectable of sorts, and very manageable in terms of games they should win and potential win streaks before C-USA play.

The first test will be in the Puerto Rico tip off starting with Boise State.

Both New Mexico schools are in total rebuilds, and the goal should be to sweep those schools, take care of Washington State at home, then win the Sun Bowl Tourney to give UTEP fans a nice taste in their mouths ahead of Christmas and before C-USA play.

The Conference USA slate is also manageable, as UTEP toughest stretch appears to be in late January into early February with UAB, MTSU, WKU, and Marshall in a four game stretch which could dictate the standings.

Is there pressure on Floyd to win, and win big this season?

We’ve joked on this forum, and our podcasts that as long as Bob Stull is the AD, Tim Floyd has no pressure to win and produce banners.

But with a new AD possibly being named early in the season, what will the realistic pressure Floyd faces with another mediocre or below average season?

UTEP invests more money from their athletic budget into the basketball program than any other C-USA school, but the Miners have failed to make the C-USA tournament championship game since Floyd’s first season when he took Tony Barbee’s players to finals.

All UTEP fans want is a chance to dance, something Floyd hasn’t delivered on with his own players and recruits. He’s been close a few times, but there is always a personnel excuse or departing millennials have to take the brunt of UTEP’s lack of on court success.

If fans are forced to sit through another mediocre or worse season, Floyd should do fans a favor and step down or the new AD needs to make a swift change as fan support has fallen to low depths the past few seasons.

UTEP basketball has the highest yearly expectations of any other athletic program at UTEP, and it’s time someone is held accountable by the new athletic director if UTEP continues to get mediocre results from a coach who has talked a big game and hasn’t delivered much since he was hired.

Expectations, projections.

The media picked UTEP 5th overall in the C-USA race, KenPom thinks UTEP will go 17-10 overall, and 11-7 in C-USA play. KenPom also predicts a nine game winning streak from December until Mid-January.

Most of the major publications have UTEP in the top 150-170 range, with plenty of question marks and positive marks to be optimistic about.

There is no denying UTEP has the talent to compete for a C-USA title, but can Tim Floyd finally deliver will be the question Miner fans want answered the most heading into year eight of the Floyd era.