C-USA Preview: UTEP at UAB


Bartow Arena in Birmingham, Alabama is the site of Thursday night’s Conference USA matchup as we approach the halfway point of league play across college basketball. The struggling UTEP Miners (7-12 overall, 2-5 C-USA) look to pick up a tough road win against the UAB Blazers (13-7 overall, 4-3 C-USA) on beIN SPORTS at 8:00PM ET / 7:00PM CT.

The Blazers started off the season hot by winning 4 of their first 5 games - their only loss coming in their Conference USA opener against the back-to-back defending champion Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. After a tough pair of losses last week - at Western Kentucky and Marshall - Thursday night’s game becomes something of a “must-win” for UAB if they want to keep pace with the top teams in the conference.

Robert Ehsan is entering his second year at UAB - his first head coaching job - after taking over the position Jerod Haase vacated when he left for Stanford. The Blazers entered last season as one of the favorites in Conference USA after a 26-7 record the previous year under Haase. A middling 17-16 record overall, 9-9 record in conference and a second-round exit in the Conference USA Tournament left fans with a disappointing taste in their mouths. 

For a team as talented as UAB - a program that has made the NCAA Tournament 15 times since its inception in 1979 - this season will need to be a return to form. 

Former UTEP head coach Tim Floyd retired in November after the team went on a five-game losing streak that culminated in an embarrassing 14-point loss to Lamar at home. Since then, interim coach Phil Johnson has taken over, and while the Miners had a four-game winning streak in December, they have struggled since conference play began. They have won just two of their first seven and are winless in three conference road games. 

The Miners expected big steps up from seniors Matt Willms and Preseason All-Conference selection Omega Harris, but both have regressed this season - especially after leading scorer Keith Frazier took an indefinite leave of absence in December. Harris’ scoring (17.0 PPG to 11.6 PPG) and efficiency numbers have taken a step back. Willms has finally found himself in the starting lineup again after missing a month due to a wrist injury. His numbers were good prior to the injury (14.8 PPG and 6.5 RPG) he sustained in November but has scored 10+ points just once since rejoining the team this month.

Things won’t get any easier as their next four games come against four of the five best teams in C-USA - three of those four are on the road.

The Miners are coming off of one of their more disappointing performances of the season against UTSA. After getting out to a 12-point lead in the first half, they scored a meager 19 points in the second half and shot 20.2% from three for the game. Offensively, they’ve struggled all year.

Where UTEP has struggled the most is distributing the ball. The Miners have the second-worst
assists per game (10.9) rate in the conference and they turn the ball over more times (12.5) per game than they set their own guys up. Their leading assist man is freshman Kobe Magee is averaging 2.1 assists per game. That’s not good.

The discovery of quality freshman guards has been a lonely bright spot in UTEP’s season. Kobe Magee is shooting 42.2% from beyond the arc. Evan Gilyard has been getting minutes off the bench and is a serviceable sixth man. Isaiah Osbourne has been a key offensive contributor since conference play began - scoring 15+ points in all but one of the team’s games against C-USA competition.

The strength of this UTEP squad is the defense. They allow  70 points per game and hold teams to 41.7% shooting from the field. The size of their guards and length of their forwards allows them to bully some smaller teams at the point of attack and prevent penetration. However, they struggle closing out on three-point shots and can get caught flat-footed.

In order for UTEP to win, they must: 
•    Force UAB into bad shots; make the game ugly
•    Keep the ball moving
•    Get excellent play from their guards

This year’s squad has proven itself one of the most well rounded in the conference and a scary matchup come tournament time. The Blazers are third in Conference USA in points allowed (67.5) per game and points scored (78.9) per game. They are also second in field goal shooting (49.4%) percentage and field goal defense (41.1%) percentage.

With seniors Chris Cokely and William “HaHa” Lee anchoring the starting forward spots, the Blazers boast one of the most fearsome duos in Conference USA. Cokely leads the conference in Player Efficiency Rating (32.8) and rebounds (9.5) per game. When UAB is on its “A” game, they dominate on the boards and hammer opposing teams down low on offense.

Where the Miners struggle, the Blazers excel. UAB is averaging 17.5 assists per game - second only to Marshall in the conference. The dimes don’t all come from one player either. Nick Norton averages 4.5 assists per game, but UAB has its own freshman phenom - Zack Bryant. He is averaging 3.2 assists per game - along with 13.2 points per game - and is an early frontrunner for Conference USA Freshman of the Year honors.

Bryant has been a model of consistency as well - he has scored double-digit points in 16 of his 20 games this season. This Zack Bryant entry to the SportsCenter Top 10 tells you all you need to know about the 18-year-old’s combination of skill and athleticism.

UAB has struggled in the free throw game. They have committed 15+ fouls in all but one of their conference games. A key flaw in their overtime loss to Marshall was sending The Herd to the line 18 times - Marshall hit all 18 free throws. They committed 22 fouls in their loss to Western Kentucky. The Blazers have been a below-average team at getting to the line as well - 352 free throws are the third-fewest in the conference.

Though they have put up better numbers in the past two games, UAB has struggled to recreate the shot-blocking dominance of its “Blockingham” moniker despite having physical presences on the inside.

In order for UAB to win, they must:
•    Get more aggressive play from their guards on offense
•    Beat UTEP up inside; rebounding and points in the paint
•    Take care of the basketball; avoid silly turnovers

Prediction: UTEP 65, UAB 80 
Other Thursday Games Across Conference USA
UTSA @ Middle Tennessee - 7:30PM ET
FIU @ Rice - 8:00PM ET
FAU @ North Texas - 8:00PM ET