How can an eight-win team turn around a program in a year to a perennial Conference USA title contender? For starters, second-year head coach Rodney Terry recruited seven Division I transfers to his Miners squad, sprinkled with a talented batch of returning sophomores.
Returning for the Miners are the four scholarship sophomores in guards Nigel Hawkins and Jordan Lathon and forwards Efe Odigie and Kaosi Ezeagu. Add Prop-48 freshman guard Deion Stroud to the mix as well.
Then there’s another batch of returning Miners—those who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Sophomore guards Kaden Archie (TCU), Souley Boum (San Francisco) and Anthony Tarke (NJIT) will each be eligible this year for the Miners, with the exception of Archie, who has to wait until January. Sophomore forward Tydus Verhoeven (Duquense) and junior forward Bryson Williams (Fresno State) round out the returners.
Finally comes the transfer market that UTEP capitalized on.
Terry picked up guards Daryl Edwards (LSU) and Keonte Kennedy (Xavier) in the summer to bolster his already talented bunch. Edwards will be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer, while Kennedy will sit out this year with three years of eligibility starting next season (2020-21).
But the major question for this young, talented squad is how will the coaching staff balance minutes? Terry believes it will be a hard-fought battle for playing time.
This could ultimately be a good problem for the coaching staff. Last year’s team lacked depth and injuries hurt the Miners in the end.
In the backcourt, there’s a case for the two returning sophomore guards in Lathon and Hawkins to continue as the starting guard duo. Lathon finished with 10.9 points per game as a freshman, along with two C-USA Freshman of the Week honors. Hawkins averaged 12.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
There’s also a strong case for Boum, Stroud and Edwards to be plugged right in the starting spots. While Boum was honored as a WCC All-Freshman at San Francisco, where he averaged 10.9 points per game, Edwards played in 32 games for LSU, starting in 16, before an injury sidelined him last year. He hasn’t seen the court yet in a game at the Divison I level, but word around practice says Stroud can also fly out of the gym.
Leading the frontcourt will be Williams, who was a 14-point, six rebound-type forward at Fresno State. Some of the UTEP staff believes Williams could be one of C-USA’s all-around best in 2019. As splendid as some of Terry’s recruits and pickups are, there is not a player more imperative to UTEP’s success this year like Williams.
Right aside Williams stands one of the best C-USA freshmen of last season in sophomore Efe Odigie. If his 11 double-doubles last year were not enough, how about his 10.1 rebounds per game that led all of C-USA? Year two for Odigie should be fun.
Eric Vila, the 6-foot-11 forward, will be a pivotal player to UTEP’s frontcourt as well. He brings experience to the table and most recently averaged 10.9 points per game and 7.3 rebounds for Northwestern Florida, one of the top JUCO programs in the country.
The way Terry can explore interchangeable lineups should be fascinating, like going big and physical in certain situations, then going small and fast in others.
This season should be far different than last year’s eight-win Miners team. They are far too talented to not succeed in conference play. It will look especially promising if they can contend against some of their tougher non-conference opponents, like New Mexico State, New Mexico and Houston.
Preseason MVP: Bryson Williams
Terry values Bryson Williams as a special impact player, having watched him since he became Roosevelt High School’s all-time leading scorer with 2,302 points, which ranks the most-ever in the city of Fresno. Williams started 58 games of 65 played at Fresno State in two seasons, earning All-Mountain West third-team honors.
Game of the Year: vs. New Mexico State
Although this might not be the year that UTEP breaks their losing streak against NM State, the Battle of I-10 might start looking like a rivalry if the Miners can keep up with what could be one of the best Aggies teams we’ve seen in years.
Impact-First Year Player: