After closing out the regular season with wins in three of four games – including a narrow loss to no. 25 Memphis – the UTEP basketball team has plenty of momentum heading into this week’s Conference USA Championship.
The Miners (17-13) will face either Houston (18-11) or Rice (5-25) in the tournament quarterfinals on Thursday at 1:30 MT at the BOK Center in Tulsa. CBS Sports Network will beam the game to a national audience.
“I think we have made progress. We have grown,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We’ve gotten better defensively. I think we’ve gotten better on the offensive side of the ball. We’re doing a lot of things in conversion that are allowing us to get easier baskets off of steals, something that we couldn’t do earlier in the season. I think our two big guys [John Bohannon & Cedrick Lang] are playing very well. C.J. Cooper is playing his best basketball. Julian Washburn is coming off his two best games as a UTEP Miner, which is very encouraging. Chris Washburn is improving. I like a lot of things about where we are right now.”
The Miners split the season series with Houston and, if the matchup surfaces, would be taking on the Cougars in the C-USA Championship for the fifth time in the last six years. UTEP swept Rice this year.
UTEP was routed at Houston on Feb. 13, 79-61, as the Cougars shot 55.1 percent from the field. The Miners have righted the ship defensively since then, holding opponents to a .377 shooting percentage and 55.1 points per game in their last seven outings.
“We’ve really played well since our first game at Houston. We have played pretty darned good defense,” Floyd said. “They are a team that can expose you though. They lead our conference in scoring. In the last three games they have scored 84, 96 and 103 [points]. It may take us two games to score 103. They have really been lighting it up.
“The whole key will be our ability to get back on defense against Houston, if we do play them. We’ve got to assume that they’ll be a heavy favorite against Rice, but stranger things have happened.”
The Miners clinched the no. 3 seed in the tournament when SMU upset Tulsa last Wednesday. That put UTEP on the opposite side of the bracket as C-USA champ Memphis and tournament host Tulsa, but Floyd suggested that it doesn’t matter a great deal in a year of tremendous parity within the league.
“If we had been on the other side [of the bracket], I’d say ‘Boy, we don’t want to play that group,’” he said. “You’re on this side and you don’t want to play a terrifically talented Houston team in the first round, if they do beat Rice. Southern Miss looks good. They all look good this time of the year and anybody is capable of beating you. I really think outside of Memphis you can lump a lot of teams together and there’s really not a whole lot of difference.”
The Miners will approach the tournament with the same mindset as hundreds of programs across the country – win one game at a time, with the ultimate objective of taking three in a row.
“I think everybody is playing with the same incentive right now, and that is to try to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Floyd said. “We have played a very strong schedule. We played the first seven games without Konner Tucker and McKenzie Moore. This is a team that very well could’ve won 22 games if we had scheduled that way. We chose to go play people with the idea that we would get better as the season went on and have a chance in our conference final. That’s all you can ask for.”