El Paso, TX — UTEP can move into a first-place tie in Conference USA with a victory over Louisiana Tech on Thursday at 7:05 in the Don Haskins Center.
The Miners (14-6, 4-1 C-USA) are currently tied for third place in the league, a half-game back of the Bulldogs (17-4, 5-1) and Southern Miss (18-3, 5-1). With Southern Miss idle on Thursday, UTEP can match the Golden Eagles’ mark and pass Louisiana Tech in the standings with a win over their old Western Athletic Conference rivals.
UTEP has won four straight Conference USA games and can match its second-longest winning streak since joining the league if it can knock off a deep and talented Louisiana Tech squad that won at Oklahoma earlier this season.
Louisiana Tech has played the last five games without leading scorer Raheem Appleby (16.1 ppg), who is out with a sprained ankle for up to two months. In Appleby’s absence, sophomore guard Alex Hamilton (15.8 ppg) and senior forward Chris Anderson (10.7 ppg) are the team’s leading scorers.
In the last five games, Hamilton has averaged 18.4 ppg and Anderson has averaged 11.2 ppg. Senior guard Jaron Johnson has also stepped up in Appleby’s absence, despite coming off the bench for all five games (13.6 ppg). He averages 8.0 ppg for the season. In Louisiana Tech’s last game versus Marshall, the Bulldogs received 44 points from their bench, including 22 from senior guard Kenyon McNeail.
Louisiana Tech ranks in the top-15 nationally in scoring margin (third, +18.7 ppg), three-point field goal percentage defense (third, .271), steals (fourth, 9.8 avg.), scoring offense (seventh, 84.9 ppg), turnover margin (seventh, 5.4) and assists (13th, 16.6 avg.). Junior guard Kenneth Smith is third in the NCAA in assists (7.4 avg.) and 14th in steals (2.5 avg.). Junior forward Michale Kyser is fourth in blocks (3.6 avg.).
“Their speed, their athleticism, their quickness and their pursuit to the ball is what jumps out at me on film,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “They are a versatile team with multiple ball handlers. They get the ball off the board with multiple push men. Everybody seems to be able to drive it. Everybody seems to be able to block shots and rebound. Everybody shoots the three. And everybody plays hard. I’m proud to say that I went to school there. And I hope it draws attention to the great career that I had at Louisiana Tech.”
Floyd, of course, is joking. He lettered one year for the Bulldogs – in 1976 – after transferring from Southern Miss. He graduated from Louisiana Tech a year later with a degree in health and physical education.
He will be coaching against his alma mater for the 17th time on Thursday. He is 10-6 versus Louisiana Tech (9-6 at New Orleans/1-0 at Iowa State).
“We played [Louisiana Tech] for many years [at New Orleans]. They were in our conference,” he said. “[There are] no extra emotions that way. It’s the alma mater. I do know their coach. He was in our basketball camps when I was coaching at the University of New Orleans. He is a great young man and has done a fabulous job with the program.”
Despite their recent success, the Miners are still trying to find themselves as they pursue win no. 500 in the Don Haskins Center. UTEP is 499-146 all-time in the arena.
“I think every game is a first for us,” Floyd said. “It’s like November for us because we’re putting ourselves in different situations with a new lineup. The other night we had to play with a lead, and we played with it well and we expanded the lead. We’ve had to come from behind. We’ve had to play on the road. And now we’re going to play in a game with meaning, and that will be a first as well.”