The Sun Bowl Association and WestStar Bank announced the teams coming to El Paso for the 56th Annual WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational, which will be held in the Don Haskins Center, Thursday and Friday, Dec. 21-22.
The four-team tournament includes North Carolina-Wilmington, North Dakota State, Howard University and UTEP. This marks the first appearance for UNCW and Howard, the second showing for NDSU and of course the Miners have played in every tournament.
“We are thrilled about this year’s field. We are hoping to continue our plan of bringing in the best teams we can find,” Sun Bowl basketball committee chairman Barry Kobren said. “Two of our teams from last year went on to win their conferences and play in the NIT. We think we will see that same success again this year.”
Akron won the 2016 WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational by defeating UC-Irvine in game one and beating Maryland Eastern Shore in the title game. Akron went on to win the MAC regular season title and made it to the second round of the NIT, while UC-Irvine won the Big West Conference regular season title and also made it to the second round of the NIT.
“This tournament has become a tradition and the history of teams and players that have come through El Paso is tremendous,” Sun Bowl Association Executive Director Bernie Olivas said. “Our basketball committee, which is led by Barry Kobren, continues to seek out and work towards bringing quality teams to the Haskins Center and El Paso.”
ABOUT THE 2017 TEAMS
*North Carolina Wilmington Seahawks
The UNCW Seahawks finished the 2016-17 year with a 29-6 record while reaching the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year, falling in close games to Duke in 2016 and Virginia in 2017. UNCW has won three consecutive Colonial Athletic Conference regular season titles and wrapped up the 2016-17 year with a No. 27 RPI, one of the highest ranked teams to appear in the Sun Bowl Invitational. UNCW finished No. 3 in the final Mid-Major Poll (CollegeInsider.com), behind only Gonzaga and Wichita State. One of the nation’s most explosive offensive units, the Seahawks set 63 school records along with averaging 84.8 points per game.
UNCW begins a new era as the Seahawks start the 2017-18 year with new Head Coach C.B. McGrath, who was previously an assistant coach to Roy Williams for 18 seasons both at Kansas and North Carolina. McGrath was on the bench last season for the Tar Heels during their national championship run. McGrath also played for Coach Williams and was the team captain for the Jayhawks during 1997.
Devontae Cacok is the top returner for UNCW after he was the CAA Defensive Player of the Year and the national leader in field goal percentage (79.9%).
“UNCW was one of the best teams in the country the last two years,” Kobren said. “They led Virginia by 15 in the NCAA tournament last season before falling to the 21st ranked Cavaliers.”
The North Dakota State athletic department has arguably become one of the top athletic programs in the country. The Bison finished the 2016-17 season with a 19-11 record, while placing second in the Summit League. They had their best four-year span in school history, winning 93 games from 2012-16. The also swept the Summit League regular season and tournament titles three times in seven years, while winning a school-record 26 games in both 2008-09 and 2013-14. NDSU appeared in the NCAA Tournament three times in seven years as well. The Bison were able to pull off an upset during the 2014 NCAA Tournament, defeating Oklahoma 80-75.
The Bison are led by fourth year Head Coach David Richman. During his first season at the helm, Richman guided NDSU to the 2015 Summit League regular season and tournament championships and their third NCAA Tournament bid in seven years. That year, he led his team to 23 victories – the most by any first-year Division I head coach that season – earning him Summit League Coach of the Year honors.
NDSU brings back First Team All-Summit League player Paul Miller, who posted 19.3 points during league play, while Khy Kabellis and A.J. Jacobson, both double digit scorers for the Bison during the 2016-17 season, also return to the team.
“North Dakota State is always a favorite to win their conference and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the NCAA tournament at the end of the season,” Kobren said.
Howard University Bison
Howard, predicted as one of the top teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), finished last season at 10-24 fighting through a number of major injuries including the loss of the nation’s leading scorer (James Daniel; 27 ppg) for the season. They did finish the season strong making a run through the MEAC tournament before falling in the semifinals.
Head Coach Kevin Nickelberry enters his eighth season leading the Bison and has already led Howard to three of the school’s best seasons. Charles “CJ” Williams was named the 2017 Mid-Eastern – Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year by the conference sports information directors and head coaches. Williams ended up being the Bison’s leading scorer and the top freshman scorer in the MEAC with 15.7 points per game in 31 games played. A seven-time MEAC Rookie of the Week, the 6-5 Richmond, Va. native notched two 30-point games, including a career-high 37 points, on 15-of-25 shooting, against Savannah State.
Howard’s 2016-2017 basketball season was chronicled on ESPN’s the Undefeated and can be found online at https://theundefeated.com/tag/howard-basketball/.
The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings of the top historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are in, with Howard University topping the list. Howard, located in Washington, D.C., not only earned the No. 1 spot, but is the only HBCU to crack the top 100 overall college rankings at No. 87.
“Howard was the first team to commit to the Sun Bowl this year and we are proud to be hosting one of the nation’s elite institutions,” Kobren said.
The UTEP Miners return five of their top six scorers from last year’s squad that charged to a 13-4 record in its last 17 games and tied for third place in Conference USA. Buoyed by the addition of a top-flight recruiting class, the Miners are looking to contend for the league title in 2017-18. UTEP will feature a potent inside-outside combination in seniors Omega Harris (17.0 ppg), a 1,000-point scorer, and Matt Williams, who ranks ninth in school history with 98 blocked shots.
Head Coach Tim Floyd leads the Miners once again after he engineered one of the biggest in-season turnarounds in the nation as the Miners started the season 2-13, but finished 13-4 and tied for third place in Conference USA with a 12-6 mark. UTEP was the only C-USA team to defeat league champion and NCAA Tournament participant Middle Tennessee. The Miners stunned the Blue Raiders in El Paso, 57-54. Floyd’s work was even more remarkable considering that UTEP lost three players from the previous year’s team — Lee Moore, Josh McSwiggan and Terry Winn — who were all expected to be major contributors and potential starters.
Senior guard Dominic Artis made the Miners go in 2016-17, becoming only the fourth player in C-USA history to register 400 points, 150 rebounds, 150 assists and 50 steals in a season. But Floyd got the most out of every other player on the roster as well, including Omega Harris (17.0 ppg), Matt Willms (11.4 ppg), Paul Thomas (8.6 ppg), Jake Flaggert, and reserves Kelvin Jones and Trey Touchet. All six players improved over the course of the campaign.