El Paso, TX — A week removed from a couple of big C-USA road wins, UTEP opens a three-game homestand versus league newcomer UTSA in a Saturday matinee at the Haskins Center. Tip-off is set for 2 p.m.
It’s the fourth annual “Noche Latina” game, and the Miners will wear Mineros jerseys. UTEP staff members will be wearing sneakers on Saturday in honor of the “Coaches vs. Cancer” initiative.
The Miners have won eight of their last nine games and are feeling good after knocking off Middle Tennessee (63-54) and UAB (63-61) last week to climb to 3-1 in C-USA action. UTEP Coach Tim Floyd downplayed the team’s recent success while keeping things in perspective.
“We really haven’t done anything other than have two really nice road wins and given ourselves a chance in the league,” he said. “Our margin of error is small. We’ve got to play tremendous defense regardless of who we play, and we’ve got to play really smart to keep guys in games and not foul out because of our lack of depth. But I’m really proud of this team right now, their effort and ability to game plan, to share and the fact they’re acting like they like each other. They like coming to work every day.”
The Miners, idle since last Saturday, enjoyed a couple of days off early in the week and have responded well to the mini break.
“I think our players came out with legs and we’ve had some inspired practices,” Floyd said.
The Miners have somehow managed to string together three straight Conference USA wins for the first time in two years despite losing three scholarship guards earlier this month. Coach Floyd addressed the team’s new reality at practice on Thursday.
“Everybody is playing a position removed,” he said. “Centers are playing power forward, power forwards are playing small forward, small forwards are playing off guard. Even our backup point guard, Aaron Jones, was a two guard at Burges.
“That’s where we are right now. We’re in transition. We’re learning how to play with each other and it has been fun to work with this group because they’re attentive and at this point they have their heads in place. They’re not delusional about how difficult this is going to be to fight through this season. There are going to be ups and downs. We have been able to win close games, which is a real credit to our players.”
UTEP has posted a 5-1 record in the last six games despite not scoring more than 68 points in any game. Rebounding and defense have keyed the hot streak. Over the last six games, the Miners have held teams to 60.3 points per game with a .372 field goal percentage and .246 three-point field goal percentage. UTEP’s rebound margin in the six games is +2.8 per contest.
In the first 13 games (8-5 record), UTEP yielded 66.2 ppg with a .377 defensive field goal percentage and .296 defensive three-point field goal percentage. The Miners were also outrebounded by an average of 0.3 per game during those 13 contests.
The Miners have also averaged 5.0 blocked shots in the last six games, compared to 3.8 in the first 13.
“That has been the biggest key to our success,” Floyd said. “Our defense at times has been just tremendous, absolutely tremendous. Our length has been the one thing that we didn’t factor in as being a plus in the transition to our new roster. But we’re really big at times with Matt Willms at 7-1, John Bohannon at 6-11, Vince Hunter at 6-8 and Julian Washburn at 6-8 on the floor for extended periods of time. We’ve shown an ability to affect shots and change shots, which has driven down the defensive field goal percentage and allowed us to hang around in games.”
The Roadrunners opened the C-USA slate with wins over Marshall (90-81) and Charlotte (85-77) at home before falling at UAB (78-65) and Middle Tennessee (80-58). UTSA is 1-6 on the road and has lost its last three road games, including at Arkansas on Jan. 4 (104-71).
Junior guard Keon Lewis, a transfer from North Idaho College, averages a team-high 14.3 points per game. Senior guard Devon Agusi (12.2 ppg), junior guard/forward Jordan Sims (11.1 ppg) and junior guard Hyjii Thomas (10.9 avg.) also average better than 10 points per game.
Floyd is shooting for his 400th collegiate coaching victory on Saturday. He is 399-227 in his 20th year as a collegiate head coach.
“I haven’t given it much thought,” he said. “I’ve been in it a long time, so you probably should accumulate a few along the way.”