El Paso, TX — Riding a season-long three-game winning streak, the UTEP Miners (8-5) will come off a short holiday break and face Western Illinois (Saturday) and Denver (Sunday) in the 52nd annual Sun Bowl Invitational this weekend. Both games are at 7 p.m.
UTEP topped Montana State, 70-55, on Monday. The Miners were able to travel home and celebrate Christmas with their families for a couple of days before returning for a Thursday night practice. UTEP also practiced on Friday morning.
"We got everybody back on time and had two spirited workouts, which you expect,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said.
Now the focus shifts to a pair of teams that posted 22 victories and won conference regular season titles last year. Denver advanced to the second round of the NIT and Western Illinois participated in the CBI.
After suffering heavy graduation losses, Western Illinois is 5-7 in 2013-14 with losses in three of its last four games. WIU is 0-6 on the road with losses to Idaho (67-63), Nebraska (62-47), Pacific (66-52), Southeastern Louisiana (62-52), Alabama State (59-52) and Utah State (68-52).
Senior forward Adam Link averages a team-leading 12.0 ppg, shooting 60.2 percent from the field. He was appointed to the Summit League All-Newcomer Team and All-Summit League Third Team a year ago.
Freshman guard Garret Covington is averaging 11.9 ppg. Senior center Michael Ochereobia paces the squad with 6.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. Link contributes 5.9 rpg.
In the latest NCAA rankings, Western Illinois was sixth in scoring defense (56.6 ppg) and 45th in field goal percentage defense (.396). Link was 25th in field goal percentage.
"They are [top ten] in the country in fewest points allowed,” Floyd said. “That's a real credit to their defense and their defensive rebounding. It's a real credit to the fact that they play with great poise on the defensive end. They execute as well as any team that we've played this year offensively. They're never out of any game and very capable of coming in here and beating us. They're certainly a better team than New Orleans, who came in here last week and beat us."
Denver is a misleading 5-6 with signature wins at Colorado State (80-70), and over Wyoming (64-61) and Belmont (90-62) at home.
The Pioneers bring a pair of players with double-figure scoring averages in junior guard Brett Olson (15.1 ppg) and senior forward Chris Udofia (13.0 ppg). Olson is 14th in the country in free throw percentage (.911) and 19th in minutes per game (36:49). The 6-6 Udofia is 27th in blocks per game (2.8) and 32nd in minutes per game (36:00).
Denver ranks among the national leaders in assist/turnover ratio (1.49) and turnovers per game (10.3) led by Olson and sophomore guard Jalen Love, who have combined for 58 assists and 29 giveaways this season.
"They have a 28-point win against Belmont who has been to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments and beat North Carolina at North Carolina,” Floyd said. “They are high efficiency offensively. I think they're a difficult challenge to play against because their defense is smart and plays to their strengths. They are a tremendous passing team, probably the best passing team we have played this year. They have learned how to win and have a lot of credibility with their most recent wins."