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UTEP Basketball: Here come the Miners

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Some thoughts on the Miners’ Texas road sweep.

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

What a turnaround this has been.

From a 2-13 record including lopsided losses to UTSA and Southern Miss making it an 0-3 start in C-USA play, to now a fourth place spot, and controlling their own destiny to an important top four seed in the Conference USA Tournament.

I rode off this team and felt Tim Floyd was way in over his head, but this team has came together and emerged as a middle of the pack contender when it looked like this team would struggled to even crack double digit wins overall on the season.

“We are playing with a lot of confidence and the ball is moving as well,” Tim Floyd said. “It seems like the earlier we play in the clock, the worse we are and the better we are when the ball is moving and really coming back around the horn. I’m just proud of our guys for understanding that the only way we could get out of this hole that we were in early is guarding our way out. That’s what happened. We have become a pretty darned good defensive club.”

‘Pretty darned good defensive club’ is a key statement as the Miners frustrated one of the top offensive attacks in the conference at Rice on Saturday.

This team is also showing how coach-able they are bouncing back from a dismal defensive performance against North Texas on Thursday, then bouncing back Saturday and defending Rice at a high level.

Bouncing back has been a major theme of the entire season so far, showing the maturity development of the main core that is carrying UTEP on this 9-2 stretch in their last 11 games after the 0-3 start to conference play.

The ability to bounce back from an embarrassing 2-13 start, to now finding a niche on the defensive end, with a legitimate productive core starting to emerge has been an eye opening experience, and the players and coaches deserve a whole lot of credit.

Over the past month or so, its been almost unreal, but this UTEP team is peaking at the right time, but can this peak last well into the second week of March is the question....

Paul Thomas is a dude

Last week, Doc Sadler doubled Matt Willms and UTEP’s guards were beneficiaries of ball movement.

This weekend it was Paul Thomas.

Not only was Thomas able to pierce zone defenses with his jumper, and effective dives to the basket, he was also key on the offensive boards.

“Obviously Paul Thomas had a great weekend,” Floyd said. “Teams are doubling Matt. It’s a new thing for him, but I think that he is making everybody better by getting it out and we’re taking the shots in rhythm just because it’s continuing to go inside.”

Over the weekend, Thomas scored 40 points, and hauled in 24 rebounds, went 17-for-25 from the field and was a major factor in UTEP’s comeback effort against North Texas, then stepped up when his name called in his hometown Saturday night.

He’s made the biggest stride over the past month, and is a key part of the Miners turnaround. But to me, Thomas has arrived thanks to some tough coaching, and his ability to take that tough coaching as a positive, and turn it into production.

Jake Flaggert steps up against Rice

He took two key charges against Rice, and delivered three huge 3-pointers against the Owls which were major factors.

Flaggert has now taken 48 career charges, and one of the biggest plays in Saturday’s win was when Flaggert stepped into front of Marcus Evans, drawing a charge fouling out the talented guard.

“Our older guys are playing really well – Omega Harris, Dominic Artis, and keeping us organized offensively,” Floyd said. “Trey Touchet has become somebody that also gives us a sense of calm when he’s on the floor. Jake Flaggert stepped in and took a couple of really, really big charges.”

The Dallas area native has some stripes on him having been around the program the past four years, and when Flaggert delivers like he did Saturday, this UTEP team can be truly dangerous over the next few weeks.

What’s next?

FAU and FIU.

Two teams that took UTEP to overtime in consecutive games try slow down UTEP’s upward momentum.

UTEP can lock up a top four seed by winning their next three games, but it won’t be easy with a long eastern time zone road trip, and two teams that can matchup with UTEP and create problems.

“We’ll have two very difficult tasks,” Floyd said. “It took us three overtimes to beat these teams. We know that they have both gotten a lot better. They will be two real tests for our team and we’ll hope to have a good week (of practice) before we go out to Miami.”