UTEP will play the first of two games against a Rice team that has been highly competitive in a major rebuilding year on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
The Owls (5-16, 1-6 C-USA) return just four players from last year’s 19-win squad -- senior guard Tamir Jackson (16.4 ppg), sophomore guard Julian DeBose (9.9 ppg), sophomore forward Seth Gearhart (7.0 ppg) and sophomore guard Dan Peera (0.3 ppg). DeBose hit the last-second jumper as Rice beat UTEP 77-75 at Tudor Fieldhouse last season.
“They are extremely well coached,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “Nobody got decimated by transfers worse than Rice did, and it happened at a time where they had difficulty replacing them.
“I think Ben [Braun] has done a remarkable job with the guys he’s got on the court. They’ve been in every game. They had Tulane and Tulsa down on the road late. They just beat Houston by 10 points, and Houston is as talented as anybody in our league. It had to give them some confidence, and they’re going to be a real challenge [on Wednesday].”
Rice has compensated for a lack of size by firing away from three-point territory. The Owls have attempted 110 more three-pointers (462) than free throws (352). They average 7.6 trifectas per game, tops in C-USA, and shoot 34.4 percent from beyond the arc. Junior guard Austin Ramljak, a Ventura College transfer, leads the team in three pointers made (48) and attempted (126).
“They shoot the ball exceedingly well,” Tim Floyd said. “They’ve made a living at the three-point line.”
Rice has one of the top newcomers in C-USA in guard Max Guercy, who has earned freshman of the week honors three times in the last five weeks. Guercy is averaging 9.7 points and scored a season-high 21 in the 79-69 win over Houston on Jan. 30.
UTEP vaulted into a tie for third-place in C-USA with Saturday’s 62-50 win over Tulane. When asked if he keeps his players from looking at the standings, Floyd said, “You can’t.”
“What you try to do as a coach is you tell them [about the standings], then look at the effort and see who wants to break a sweat,” Floyd said. “And when guys don’t break a sweat, you get new guys in who will. Because if you don’t play hard, you’re not going to beat this team.”
One guy who has broken a sweat – on both ends of the floor – is sophomore guard McKenzie Moore. He has scored in double figures in three straight games for the first time as a Miner, but Floyd prefers to focus on his defensive effort.
“It was much better in our last game than it was at UAB,” Floyd said. “He has grown as a player every time out. He didn’t have the benefit of preseason practice. He’s starting to play games where he’s not turning it over, where he’s scoring both inside and out. He is involving teammates with five assists and one turnover [versus Tulane]. He did a nice job defensively in our last game. The key for any young player is to string those kinds of games together … to remember how you did it and do it again.”
UTEP jumped out to a 15-point halftime lead versus Tulane on Saturday, allowing Floyd to go to his bench early and often.
“We were able to throw Hooper out there in the first half, which will certainly help him at some point,” he said. “We still like Hooper Vint. He’s a freshman. He’s six ten and a half, six eleven with a touch. He can run and jump. He’s got to get a little better when somebody smacks him in the mouth, in terms of reacting and playing tougher. If he can do that, he’s going to be a fine player before he leaves here.”