POSTED: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 - 2:46pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 - 8:38pm
El Paso. TX — UTEP gained some confidence by toppling Marshall, 66-56, for its first Conference USA win of the season on Saturday. Now the Miners will take that positive aura on the road as they face two of the league’s upper echelon teams.
The Miners (11-6, 1-1 C-USA) will play at Middle Tennessee on Thursday and at UAB on Saturday. Those teams are a combined 22-9 on the year, but more impressively 17-1 on their home courts.
Middle Tennessee was 28-6 last season, 19-1 in the Sun Belt and merited an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, where it dropped a 67-54 decision to Saint Mary’s. The Blue Raiders returned eight lettermen and two starters from that squad. Middle Tennessee is 11-5 thus far in 2013-14 and 1-0 in C-USA with an 89-84 overtime victory over UAB at the Murphy Center on Saturday.
“They’re probably the most physical team in our league,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “They are very versatile, which we are not right now. We’re just going to try to go in and give ourselves a chance to win. That’s the challenge we have with three scholarship perimeter players. We’d like to shoot the ball better than we have and continue to rebound it like we have rebounded it.”
Senior forward Shawn Jones leads Middle Tennessee, averaging 14.4 points per game. Senior forward Neiko Hunter is collecting 13.5 ppg and junior swingman Kerry Hammonds adds 12.5 ppg. Jones is also the team’s leading rebounder at 8.8 caroms per outing.
Middle Tennessee is second in Conference USA in blocked shots (4.7 avg.) and turnover margin (+2.6 per game), and third in rebound margin (+6.4 per game) and steals (7.1 avg.). In the latest NCAA statistical rankings (Jan. 12), Middle Tennessee was 30th in rebound margin. Jones was 18th in field goal percentage (.600) and 29th in double-doubles (six).
Middle Tennessee Coach Kermit Davis followed UTEP’s Tim Floyd as the head coach at Idaho. Floyd was there from 1986-88, and Davis was there from 1988-90. Davis was also an assistant to Floyd at Idaho. Floyd and Davis will be coaching against one another for the first time on Thursday.
“A lot of the little zone tricks that we run are stuff that Kermit gave me back in 1986 when he worked for me at Idaho,” Floyd said. “He is as talented as any coach I’ve ever had. I’ve had 11 guys go on to become Division I head coaches. I’m not worried about Kermit as much as the players, and they’re very good as well. It will be a real challenge for our guys. We’ll have to play very smart and very hard and match their effort because we’re going to see a fine basketball team.”
Middle Tennessee has won 25 straight conference games at the Murphy Center and 36 of its last 37 overall in the venue. Middle Tennessee is 38-3 in the building since the 2011-12 season.
The Miners’ all-time Conference USA road mark is 27-36, including 4-4 in 2012-13. UTEP is 3-5 in C-USA road openers, including a 66-57 triumph at Tulane a year ago.
Thursday’s game marks the first-ever meeting between UTEP and Middle Tennessee.