On a night in where UTEP will honor legend Jeep Jackson, UTEP also faces one of the more talented lineups in C-USA with the UAB Blazers coming to town.
The Blazers come in having won eight of their last nine, and have found away to play at a high level despite the absence of veteran point guard Nick Norton who has been out with an injury.
UAB has an elite front court tandem with Chris Cokley and William Lee who are two major contributors, and future pro prospects.
Lee ranks 25th nationally according to Ken Pom in blocked shots percentage, and he also has evolved his offensive game into a the stretch big man NBA teams covet. Lee’s efficient field goal percentage is tops in the conference, and he’s also shooting close to 40 percent from 3-point land.
William Lee and Chris Cokle combine to average 24.8 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks, and you can’t forget about Tosin Mehinti who is another big body with productive potential and shot blocking ability.
“They are big, they are powerful, they are strong, they are athletic,” Tim Floyd said. “They’re probably the most talented frontline in our league, without me looking at Middle Tennessee much. One 6-10 guy [Lee] shoots 39 percent from the three-point line. They use their length blocking shots. We were dominant in the paint on the road [last week]. I doubt that’s going to happen here against a vaunted front line. We’re going to have some issues that we’re going to have to play through.”
In the backcourt, the versatile Dirk Williams returns for UAB. Williams will be a matchup issue for UTEP at times, and he’s also shooting 51 percent on his two point tries.
Hakeem Baxter also returns and has been Norton’s replacement. Deon Lavender is another guard UTEP has to account for as he’s scored in double figures in five straight games.
UTEP will feed off what could be an excited home court advantage environment with the Jeep Jackson tribute.
The Miners also will feed off some new found identities of rebounding, getting points production in the paint, and taking care of the ball.
Matt Willms was named C-USA player of the week after the strongest two game stretch in his career. Willms now ranks 103rd nationally in efficient field goal percentage, and went 24-for-31 from the field last week.
Quietly, Willms is also getting help from freshman big man Kelvin Jones which is slowly morphing UTEP into a physical team.
Jones has provided steady role play in spelling Willms averaging 5.6 rebounds in his last three games. You will also see Willms and Jones play together to match up with UAB’s elite front line.
“We were the worst defensive club that I’ve ever coached through the end of December, but we were also bad offensively,” Floyd said. “We struggled, we had players that were hurt, players like Matt Willms who weren’t practicing. We had a young player that was trying to find himself in Paul Thomas. We had guards who were trying to do more than what they should be able to do and were capable of doing. And Matt has gotten healthy, Paul has gotten better and our guards have taken a step back and deferred a little bit and as a result they’re playing better. And our defense, which was the worst in Conference USA prior to league play, is now best in Conference USA in field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage. Now, we’re not out of the woods. We still have some warts that we’ve got to work through. But I’m really proud of these guys.”
Not of the woods is right, but the Miners could turn a huge corner this weekend starting on Thursday.
Keys to a UTEP win
- Match UAB’s physicality
- Flaggert hitting 3’s
- Avoid foul trouble
- Make UAB’s guards beat you
This will be closer than most expect.
This Jeep Jackson tribute means a lot to Tim Floyd, and I would bet he has his guys ready like he did last week at Marshall.
UTEP can matchup with UAB nicely in the back court, but its going to come down to which set of big’s eats more.
I’m gonna do it, haven’t done it all year, and still not sipping the “UTEP has it figured it kool-aid” but somehow, someway, UTEP wins this game.
UTEP by 2.....