With the 2012-13 regular season winding down, the UTEP basketball team has a lot to play for – namely an all-important bye in the Conference USA Tournament, which tips off two weeks from Wednesday.
The Miners (14-12, 7-5 C-USA) are in fourth place in the conference standings, a half-game behind UCF (18-9, 8-5), which is ineligible for the C-USA Tournament. Five teams, excluding UCF, will earn first-round byes at the C-USA Tournament, slated for March 13-16 in Tulsa.
Wins in two of the last four games might be enough to keep the Miners from playing on the tournament’s first day. Three victories will certainly do the trick. But UTEP still has a demanding slate remaining, including home games versus Houston (15-10, 4-8 C-USA) on Wednesday and Memphis on Tuesday. The Tigers have already wrapped up the league’s regular season crown.
“It’s a fitting way to finish what has been the most difficult schedule in the school’s history, playing what I think are the two most talented teams in the conference at home,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “Houston just pummeled us at their place. They’re averaging 78 points per game. We had no answer for them defensively. Memphis, in my belief, is the most talented team in the country. I think they’re playing as well as anybody in the United States. They’ve got a chance to win it all. I think the country is sleeping on those guys, and Houston went to their place and only lost by seven.”
Houston is 4-6 on the road, but that’s misleading. In the Cougars’ last three road games, they have beaten SMU in overtime (84-80), taken Tulsa to triple overtime before losing (101-92), and dropped a seven-point decision (81-74) to the nationally-ranked Tigers.
Houston leads Conference USA and ranks 13th nationally in scoring, averaging 77.8 points per game. The Cougars are second in C-USA in three-point field goal percentage (.370) and third in three-point field goal percentage defense (.323) and assist/turnover ratio (1.1).
Sophomore guard Joseph Young rates 16th nationally in free throw percentage (.882). Sophomore forward TaShawn Thomas is 19th in rebounding (9.7 avg.) and 23rd in double-doubles (11). Young (17.5 ppg) and Thomas (17.0 ppg) rank third and fourth respectively in C-USA in scoring. Thomas is second in the league in rebounding, and Young is third in free throw percentage. Freshman guard Jherrod Stiggers is second in three-pointers made per game (2.3).
Houston is last in C-USA in scoring defense for league games only (78.8 ppg), but held UTEP to 61 points in the first meeting between the teams on Feb. 13 at Hofheinz Pavilion. That tied the low point total by a C-USA opponent versus the Cougars this season.
UTEP is 12-2 at home this season. Floyd was quick to point out that the crowd can help the Miners, but only if they play well enough to win.
“We struggled at home against a very talented defensive club in Tulsa. We couldn’t get it done,” he said. “We struggled at home against UNLV and didn’t get it home. Just because we’re playing at home doesn’t mean anything. But a spirited crowd tends to get us going a little bit.”
Floyd raved about the support his team has received this season. He hopes that continues over the next week.
“Our fan base has been outstanding,” he said. “I couldn’t second guess anything that they’ve done all year long. They have been terrific, and I expect them to be here for our next couple of games as well. We’re still playing for an awful lot. A sweep this weekend would put us in position to probably draw a bye in the first round of the conference tournament. That makes your road a little easier trying to get to the finish line.”