CONFERENCE USA BASKETBALL: UTEP AT SOUTHERN MISS
January 4th, 2017
Conference USA welcomes in the new year with its a fresh slate of basketball games on Thursday night. The first beIN College basketball game of 2018 features two teams whose resolution will be to start the calendar off with a win in conference play. The UTEP Miners (6-8 overall, 1-1 C-USA) head to Hattiesburg to face the Southern Miss Golden Eagles (7-8 overall, 0-2 C-USA) at 8:00pm ET/7:00pm CT on beIN SPORTS USA.
While the Miners look to pick up an important win to get their conference record up above the .500 mark, the Golden Eagles will be intent on snapping a 4-game losing streak.
UTEP is under new leadership following an out-of-left-field retirement announcement by former coach Tim Floyd after starting the season with five losses in their first six games. Despite having success as the head man at USC, Floyd never finished better than second in his seven seasons Conference USA. After the Floyd departure, 7-foot center Kelvin Jones left the team. UTEP also reported last week that leading scorer Keith Frazier will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team - causing Frazier to miss the team’s 80-62 win over Rice on Saturday.
Miners will be without Keith Frazier tonight, who has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the team. Frazier is averaging 14.5 points (first on the team) and 6.2 rebounds (second)— UTEPMBB (@UTEP_MBB) December 31, 2017
Since interim coach Phil Johnson took over, fortunes have improved for the Miners, winners of five of their last seven games - including a Power 5 win over Washington State last month. Despite a considerable amount of flux this season, the Miners still have a lot left to play for.
Phil Johnson was the head coach at San Jose State for 4 seasons (1998-99, 2002-05). He has coached in 9 NCAA Tournaments and 2 Final Fours as an assistant, and was a part of Arizona's National Championship run in 1997. #WeAreMiners— UTEPMBB (@UTEP_MBB) December 1, 2017
Entering his fourth season in Hattiesburg, coach Doc Sadler has had a tough go of it. The Golden Eagles have lost at least 20 games in his first three years after winning 20 games in the previous 5 straight seasons. However, this season they are already on pace for their best season under Sadler. Picking up their first conference win on Thursday night would go a long way towards building confidence for the rest of the season.
UTEP KEYS TO THE GAME
As more and more teams around basketball run small-ball lineups, the traditional big man is becoming less and less relevant - or so they say. The Miners have a 7”1 center in Matt Willms who will be counted on to dominate on the boards against a Southern Miss team that does not have a single player over 6”7 on its roster. The height and length of 6”8 forward Paul Thomas and 6”5 guard Isaiah Osbourne will be a big factor as long as the Miners can keep the speedy guards of Southern Miss in front of them. That said, UTEP has struggled to translate its size to rebounding success.
Defense has been an area of strength for the Miners. They hold teams to the second-lowest amount of points per game (68.4) in C-USA.
Opposing teams are shooting just 42% from inside the arc against UTEP - good for top 20 in the NCAA in two-point defense. Opposing teams are shooting 40% from the field against them overall -- good for the second-best mark in C-USA. However, because of a lack of closing speed, due to their size, the Miners struggle to defend the three. They allow teams to shoot 37% from 3PT - the second-worst mark in conference.
Offensively, UTEP will need to find consistent scoring and playmaking options beyond Matt Willms and guard Omega Harris now that leading scorer Keith Frazier is considered out for the season. One of the talented trio of freshman in Osbourne, guard Kobe Magee and forward Trey Wade will have to step up.
They were already struggling on that end and average 68.4 points per game - second worst in C-USA. They are also the conference’s fourth-worst free throw shooting team - 67.3% from the line.
In order for the Miners to win, they must: dominate the boards against smaller opposition, get offensive contributions from their role players, and prevent wide-open 3PT opportunities for Southern Miss.
SOUTHERN MISS KEYS TO THE GAME
The Golden Eagles’ biggest strength lies in their ability to win the turnover battle. They are the only team in C-USA to average under double digits (9.6) in turnovers per game. They are third best in C-USA at forcing turnovers - averaging 15.3 per game. Solid facilitating guard play has also helped Southern Miss build the best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.56) in the conference.
As a result, Southern Miss has turned into one of the tougher defenses in Conference USA. They rank right behind UTEP in points allowed per game (71.9) - good for third-best in conference. However, teams that do not turn the ball over have been able to score at a decent clip against the Golden Eagles. They have allowed teams to shoot 45.7% from the field and 35.7% from 3PT.
Oklahoma State junior transfer guard Tyree Griffin is already one of the best set-up guys in C-USA - he currently sits fourth with 5.8 assists per game. His backcourt partner, leading scorer Cortez Edwards, form the backbone of the ream. Edwards is averaging 16.7 points per game - 8th in C-USA. Both Edwards and Griffin rank second (2.1) and fourth (1.9) in C-USA in steals per game respectively.
The Achilles heel of the Southern Miss guard combo is their anemic performance from behind the arc. Griffin is shooting 31% from 3PT, while Edwards is shooting a borderline offensive 27.5% from downtown. The only reliable shooter on the starting lineup is 6”1 guard Kevin Holland. Overall the team ranks second-worst in C-USA and 288th overall in three-point shooting percentage (31.9%) which will hurt them against the better teams in the conference.
In order for Southern Miss to win, they must: continue to pressure opposition into turnovers, move ball around and hit shots early to stretch out defense, keep UTEP out of the paint and when in doubt, send them to the foul line.
Prediction: UTEP 68, Southern Miss 74
Other Thursday Games Across Conference USA
UAB @ Florida Atlantic - 7:00PM ET
Middle Tennessee @ FIU - 7:00PM ET
UTSA @ Louisiana Tech - 7:30PM ET
Old Dominion @ Rice - 8:00PM ET
Charlotte @ North Texas - 8:30PM ET