A week off following a wild week full of games, coaching changes, injuries, and drama, UTEP returns to the floor Saturday to host Washington State out of the PAC-12.
The Cougars were the early college basketball surprise after solid wins against St. Mary’s, Saint Joseph’s, and San Diego State, but fell flat against UC Davis and Idaho in blowout losses.
“We have been watching [them] quite a bit,” Interim head coach Phil Johnson said. “The thing that’s really interesting about them, you know they were 6-0 and they had beaten San Diego State, and they had beaten Saint Mary’s who is rated in the top-20. Those are really impressive wins. They are scoring a lot of points. But what’s amazing, they had been down three times 20+ points and came back and won. So they’re never out of a game, and you’re never out of a game if you’re down to them because they shoot so quickly and long bombs. So we’ve got to get out to the three-point line and guard them. That will be the message.”
The ability to scrap back from those deficits maybe attributed to their stellar 3-point shooting which ranks 53rdnationally according to KenPom. 46 percent of their point distribution comes from behind the 3-point arch which ranks 3rd nationally.
Wazzu’s top two scorers – junior forward Robert Franks (19.9 ppg) and sophomore guard Malachi Flynn (16.8 ppg) – have both made tremendous strides from a year ago. Franks averaged 6.3 points in 2016-17, and Flynn collected 9.7 ppg. Sophomore guard Carter Skaggs (Chipola College) has been an impact transfer, averaging 8.0 points while shooting 50 percent (17-for-34) from three-point range and 100 percent (9-for-9) from the line. As a team, Washington State shoots 39.3 percent from beyond the arc and 71.9 percent from the charity stripe.
For UTEP they will be without Matt Willms for at least one more game as he is recovering well from his injury.
“My guess is probably not on Saturday, but he’ll be ready for the following game,” Johnson said.
Even with UTEP’s lack of frontcourt depth, the Cougars don’t get to the line very often and only score there on 14.7 percent of their total points, so this is a chance for Tirus Smith, and Paul Thomas to etch some major minutes, and hopefully make an offensive impact.
UTEP will once again rely on a guard heavy lineup, looking to build off their first win against a D-1 opponent in a really long time which saw Omega Harris get back to his All-C-USA form, and freshman Kobe Magee arrive with a 16 point effort against the Lobos last Saturday.
“Kobe came off the bench and played really flawless, had a great floor game and made the right decisions,” Johnson said. “That was a game where you had to make the right decision once you beat the press. I thought he did. He’ll probably get the start [on Saturday].”
Despite UTEP’s poor overall offensive numbers this season matched up with the Cougars numbers. The Miners are two point favorites according to KenPom, and more adjustments, wrinkles, and lineup combos can be unveiled after a full week of nothing but school and practices.
“It was a drastic change from the New Mexico State game [on Nov. 30], where we looked awful,” Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “But you know, we tried to throw in some things in 48 hours that really didn’t fit our team to go play that game. We made some adjustments and the guys played great. They played with a lot of confidence. Obviously Omega [Harris] had his best game of the season and probably his career. But the real key for me was Kobe Magee’s points and his decision-making against all that pressure. But I think they feel pretty good about themselves right now.”
KenPom predicted score: UTEP 75 Washington State 73