Five Things We Learned From UTEP Following Diamond Head Classic
The month of December featured as many bumps and lumps in the road as we anticipated, and now the Miners (9-4) will have about a week to prepare for the start of Conference USA play next Thursday.
UTEP played six Division I opponents in a 10-day stretch, going 3-3 with wins against NC A&T, UC Irvine and Ball State, and losses to Houston, Hawaii and Boise State. They are 1-4 away from the Don Haskins Center.
They are coming off a 1-2 showing in the Diamond Head Classic, where they fell to Hawaii (67-63) in the first round, beat Ball State (71-70) in the consolation round and lost to Boise State (72-67) in the final game of the tournament.
Now let's dissect what we learned:
UTEP has a bench—a good one too
My dig against the UTEP squad going into their game against Ball State was that the team hadn't been using its bench as anticipated at the start of the season. Relievers were starting to come off the bench and would not shoot or contribute in ways that the team needed. The Miners got 18 points off the bench against Houston and eight versus Hawaii, but again, the supporting cast looked like they were being held back in stretches.
This team was becoming too reliant on its starters to make the majority of their points.
Against Ball State (31) and Boise State (26), the Miners combined for 57 points off the bench, seeing solid progression from guys like Anthony Tarke, Kaden Archie, Efe Odigie and Nigel Hawkins. Archie scored 11 points in the final two games for the Miners, while Tarke averaged 5.5 points and seven boards off the bench in the Ball State and Boise State games.
It's encouraging to see newcomers Archie and Tarke take a step forward, along with second-year players like Odigie and Hawkins have nice outings off the bench.
Miners still search for a secondary scorer
Souley Boum? Daryl Edwards? Hell, maybe even Jordan Lathon if he got out of his scoring slump?
Someone needs to step up and be the No. 2 guy for Bryson Williams.
Every game it flips for the Miners on who can hold his own in scoring along with Bryson Williams but the team needs a secondary scorer they can rely on to get them buckets through tough stretches. We saw Edwards put 14 against Boise State, which wasn't enough to help the team scrap away with a win. Odigie (12) and Archie (11) helped the squad by scoring in double figures against Ball State. Boum scored in double-digits in each game on the four-game away stretch, except against Hawaii where he tallied nine points.
There are scorers on this team but there needs to be that one true secondary scorer for the Miners.
My vote is for Edwards. He averages 9.3 points per game but also leads the backcourt in turnovers per game (2.4). But in order for this to really happen and for the Miners to see Edwards storm through conference play, he cannot shy away from taking over when he deems necessary and even take some shots away from Williams. He also needs to work on limiting turnovers offensively. Defensively, he might be UTEP's best lock-down defender. Now he has a chance to be the best two-way guard on this team.
When Bryson Williams is shut down, it's an uphill battle
Needing that secondary scorer is even more obvious after Williams was held to just six points in UTEP's loss to Boise State on Wednesday. The scary thing is four guards—Edwards (14), Boum (11), Archie (11) and Lathon (10)—scored in double figures against the Broncos, yet they still lost.
Unless Wednesday was an outlier, there is cause for concern here.
All season, we wondered how the Miners would be if Williams had an off day. Well, he had one and the Miners were -11 on the rebound margin against the Broncos and allowed 44 points in the paint.
Getting Williams to commit fouls has been a point of attack for opposing teams too. They are trying to get Williams out of games early so they don't have to worry about defending him for stretches.
Kaden Archie is giving his case as to why he deserves more minutes
The TCU transfer is starting to find his footing after a bit of a jittery start with the team since being eligible on Dec. 3. And back-to-back 11 point performances is exactly how the sophomore wanted to close out the month of December.
Archie is now averaging nearly 15 minutes per game off the bench and his versatility has been on display during the road trip. He's averaging almost five points and two rebounds per game and seems to only get better. He can defend at a high level too, having forced seven turnovers on defense. The 15 turnovers in nine games are a bit worrying but he's still raw and developing.
This team is still a ways away from high expectations
UTEP is still the same team that started off undefeated with a pair of big wins against NMSU and New Mexico. But losses to Houston, Hawaii and Boise State have humbled the Miners and the fanbase.
This is a team that cannot sleepwalk through C-USA. This also is a team that has to win the league tournament for any NCAA Tournament hopes. C-USA is still a one-bid league.
Rebounding, interior defense and cleaning up turnovers on offense are some areas of emphasis for the Miners in conference play.
UTEP has been killed off the glass as of late. In their last five matchups (UC Irvine, Houston, Hawaii, Ball State and Boise State), UTEP has been bested 205-142 on the boards. They have allowed 30 or more points in the paint through their last four games, and Hawaii (40) and Boise State (44) both put up 40-plus in the paint.
Offensively, the Miners average 14.8 turnovers per game. They make up for it on defense by their 6.8 steals per game and their +1.3 turnover margin. But they shouldn't have to rely on their defense to bail them out. UTEP's defense needs to be their focal point.
Overall, there's no need for panic on this team. They are good and they made a splash early on. This is a great opportunity for the Miners to storm through conference play, dominate and truly take over—easier said than done. UTEP is still fairly young and we will see how close they can get to a conference title in the coming months.
UTEP will open Conference USA play at FIU on Jan. 2 with tipoff set for 10 a.m. MT in Miami. Fla. The Miners will then battle Florida Atlantic on Jan. 4 in Boca Raton, with tipoff set for 2 p.m. MT. Both games can be heard on 600 ESPN El Paso.