The past nine game stretch has seen this UTEP team rise above a double digit losing streak, and knock off NCAA Tourney bound Middle Tennessee in the process.
But the ultimate test of how far this UTEP team has actually grown is in the form of a four game road trip starting with North Texas on Thursday evening.
“We’re just going to try to get ready for North Texas, knowing that they have experienced what we experienced early in the year and they’re dangerous,” Tim Floyd said. “We have not been tremendous on the road, although we won our last game. We’re going to try to go on the road and defend, not turn it over, try to get to the foul line, try to keep the other team off the foul line, and you always have to rebound on the road. You’ve got to limit second chance opportunities. So to make it simple, that’s what we’re focusing on.”
The story on the Mean Green is more about who won't play Thursday versus who is going to play.
The Mean Green returned four starters this season, and the addition of a big name transfer had hopes sky-high in Denton over the summer, but those hopes have been completely crashed.
Keith Frazier was the most prized transfer among C-USA teams, but the former McDonald's All-American only played four games this season and is done for the year with knee problems.
Jeremy Combs is one of the top players in the league, but he too was shut down with injury along with Deckie Johnson who averaged 14.6 points per game last season.
Injuries have been a big part of why the Mean Green have lost 12 out of their last 13 games after starting the season 6-5.
J-Mychal Reese and AJ Lawson have the only constant bright spots so far for Tony Benford, with an emerging freshman also rising up to produce.
Lawson is averaging 16.2 points per game in his last five ball games, and Reese leads the Mean Green in scoring during conference play.
Lawson was named C-USA Freshman of the Week two weeks ago giving North Texas back-to-back Freshman of the Week honors.
In a season full of negative results, a pleasant surprise has emerged for North Texas in the form of Ryan Wooldridge who is the reigning C-USA Freshman of the Week.
The 6'3 Woolridge went a perfect 8-for-8 on his two point tries, and scored 21 points against FIU last Saturday. On February 4th he made five 3-pointers for another 21 point outing against Rice.
“They shoot it well, and I think they shoot it better than what they have shot it,” Floyd said. "They’ve got 4’s and 5’s that also step out and shoot it. Actually those guys are shooting as many as threes and for a better percentage than the perimeter players. So that becomes a test for guys like Matt Willms, who have to step out on the floor and go guard at the three-point line.”
Benford does run an offense that is friendly to the stretch four or five types, as 6'7 forward Derail Green has been their most consistent outside shooter during conference play.
6'9 forward Shane Temara is the test for Matt Willms Floyd is referring to, but as a team the Mean Green are shooting just 31 percent from 3-point land, and 41 percent from the field all together in C-USA play in where they are 1-11.
North Texas has lost six times by seven points or less, three times to Conference USA opponents at The Super Pit, but a focused UTEP team should be able to take care of business against the reeling foes from Denton.
“We’re just telling them about North Texas right now,” Floyd said. “And then if we get that one, we’ll talk about Rice. I don’t want them seeing anything beyond the day-to-day improvement, which is what we have focused on. We can focus on trying to defend better, rebound the ball better, trying to take care of the ball better and better shot selection, every single day. Right now I don’t want our guys thinking way too much. I want them thinking very simple, and I think that’s the best way to do it for this group.”
Over the last nine games, UTEP has allowed 61 points per game with a defensive field goal percentage of .378 (188-for-498) and a defensive three-point field goal percentage of .264 (57-for-216).
The Miners have also allowed less than 60 points in three of the last four games, and have not given up a single fast break point in their last five games.
Falling behind early on in games has been a major weakness during this nine game stretch, but UTEP has outscored opponents 319-250 in the second half over the last nine games.
UTEP is also shooting 50.4 percent from the field in the second half during the nine game stretch and opponents have a .360 (86-for-239) field goal percentage and .228 (23-for-101) three-point percentage in the second half of those games.
It’s a nerve racking formula for fans, but this UTEP team is now able to climb out of holes due to solid defense, and smart offense which involves taking care of the ball.
“We need to go out and get something established early on the road,” Floyd said. “At times that has been a test for us over at Southern Miss, at UTSA, at New Mexico, at Western Kentucky. Just getting out of the gate, not playing stale early, taking good shots which we do, but making some of those shots. That’s what was so encouraging about our homestand. We really got comfortable offensively in our last ballgame [versus Southern Miss].”
Keys to a UTEP win
- Pressure UNT above the 3-point line on defense (UNT guards are TO prone)
- Make Free throws
- Convert open floor chances
- X-factor: big games from either Paul Thomas, Jake Flaggert, and/or Trey Touchet
This game screams "UTEP LET UP" in terms of coming off a solid home stand followed up by a waiting dumpster fire that is North Texas and the Miners have themselves the ole 'trap game' situation.
With a possible huge standings implication game against Rice looming on Saturday, Floyd's hope is his team is zoned in on the Mean Green.
Floyd gave North Texas a lot of credit in his comments, but let's be real….they are depleted, and Tony Benford will have a new job next year.
The hope is UTEP dominates, and heads down to Houston with major confidence, but North Texas will give UTEP a game before the Miners pull away with solid defense, and clean guard play.
Miners by 5…