The surging UTEP Miners?
A few weeks/months ago this would be a far-fetched idea, but the Miners proved Thursday night that their recent improvement is legit, but will be tested at a high level once again this weekend.
The level of competition raises to its highest level on the C-USA slate as one of the top mid-major teams in the country comes into the Don Saturday evening.
“I just hope our crowd will come back out here Saturday night and regroup again and recognize and try to admire the fact that we are a team in progress, a team that’s growing,” Tim Floyd said. “We’re going to play a team that in my opinion is a top-15 team in the country. It will be another great test.”
A top-15 team is not a stretch, nor simple coaches' talk. Middle Tennessee is a legit NCAA Tournament team winning nine of their last 10 games by double digits and all during a 10 game winning streak during conference play.
The Blue Raiders return stars Reggie Upshaw, and Giddy Potts, but newcomer Jacorey Williams has taken this team to another level of elite and gives the Blue Raiders another star player.
Williams is an Arkansas transfer and is putting up C-USA Player of the Year type numbers. He leads the Blue Raiders scoring 17.3 points per game, and has posted eight double-doubles on the season.
Offensive rebounding usually is a topic not harped on, but Williams has historically been very good on the offensive boards, and will be a huge matchup problem for the Miners as he can play, and score around the rim.
Middle is once again shooting the 3-ball well with guards Edward Simpson, Tyrik Dixon, and forward Xavier Habersham all shooting well over 40 percent and have attempted more than 40 3-pointers each.
Potts and Upshaw are always key and evolving into efficient scorers as they've been the past few seasons. Potts is shooting 60 percent on his two point tries, while Upshaw is shooting 59 percent from inside the 3-point line.
The Blue Raiders are +4.5 on the boards this season led by Williams, Upshaw and Potts, and have a +10.6 scoring margin which is very impressive when you look at who they've played this season.
For UTEP, Matt Willms continues his strong stretch of play, showing some athleticism against a talented UAB frontcourt and also showing the Canadian is finally at full health and starting to reach the peak of his potential.
UTEP needed a guard to take over in the second half against UAB, and Omega Harris continues to grow into an impact scorer. Harris went 7-for-10 from the field and scored 19 points in the second half rebounding from a 2-for-7 start.
Throw in another nice floor game from Dominic Artis, and it the word of Tim Floyd, UTEP's guard play has simply been "terrific".
The Miners defensive improvement is also very real as UTEP's point zone concepts continue to confuse conference opponents along with a mix of defenses UTEP has been employing.
UTEP took out UAB's guards with stiff defense, and did a good job of switching in the point zone and in UTEP's man-to-man. It seemed at times Willms was guarding both of UAB's big's at once and was agile in being able to swat away three shots while effecting a few others.
"The team is maturing from the standpoint that we didn’t let our lack of offense influence us on the defensive end." Floyd said. "We just kept guarding. We got a couple traps and steals out of a little halfcourt press that coach [Bobby] Braswell put out and it really, really helped us. Coach [Phil] Johnson had a great plan with the man to man defense on the other end. We got a little help out of the box and one.”
Nine of the last 12 opponents have shot under 39 percent from the field, and via the trap forced 13 UAB turnovers.
A win against UAB shows the Miners are on the right path of improvement, but UTEP will have to put it all together and more Saturday against Middle Tennessee.
Main Keys to a UTEP win vs. Middle Tennessee
- Keep Middle off the 3-point line
- Keep Willms out of foul trouble
- 3-pointers from Jake Flaggert, and Trey Touchet
- Make free throws
Tim Floyd vs. Kermit Davis will be a classic coaching chess match as Kermit's talent vs. Floyd's scientist way of game planning with this current UTEP team will be the main matchup.
Middle Tennessee again employs a deep rotation which will be a difference if UTEP's scoring is not balanced. The UAB win was nice, but Middle Tennessee is no joke, and could bring UTEP back down to reality.
UTEP will fight and keep it within striking distance, but the lack of scoring off the bench, and overall depth is severely exposed down the stretch.
Middle Tennessee by 8….