Preseason MVP: You don’t see many players like Bryson Williams. Williams is a pro player in the making and enters as a strong candidate for Conference USA Player of the Year.
The Ceiling: If the Miners develop quick chemistry among newcomers and returners, while showing they can overcome adversity, the wins will start to pile up. UTEP has top-three potential and, if they’re able to do it, will be a serious threat to win the conference and get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years.
The Floor: The lows have weighed heavy on the Miners in previous seasons and if they get into another funk like last year, they could miss the Conference USA Tournament and frustrate the fan base even more.
Game of the Year: Western Kentucky, February 6
Projected Starting Five
G | 6-5 | Jr. | New Orleans, La.
G | 6-3 | R-Jr. | Oakland, Calif.
G | 6-5 | R-So. | Austin, Texas
F | 6-8 | R-Sr. | Fresno, Calif.
F | 6-9 | R-Jr. | Manteca, Calif.
Impact-First Year Player: Jamal Bienemy
After losing six players to the transfer portal over the offseason, third-year head coach Rodney Terry and his staff were left to do a bit of reshaping to the UTEP roster following a roller coaster 2019-20 season.
The Miners started last year red-hot, winning eight of their first nine games, including victories against regional rivals New Mexico and NM State. Then, UTEP went 5-13 over its next 18 games before winning four straight in the bottom Conference USA seeding “pod” prior to the league tournament. They squeezed into the tournament only to get bounced out in the first round.
The underwhelming finish then led to a transfer portal frenzy. The team saw a group of six players enter the transfer portal in Kaosi Ezeagu (mid-year, Kansas State), Jordan Lathon (Milwaukee), Nigel Hawkins (Stephen F. Austin), Deon Stroud (Fresno State) and Kaden Archie (Georgia Southern).
But on the flip-side, the Miners were able to supplement the talent they lost over the offseason by adding some significant pieces to their roster. They solved the gaping hole at the point guard position by adding Oklahoma transfer Jamal Bienemy, a two-year starter in the Big 12 that averaged 5.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 steals in 31.9 minutes for the Sooners last year. He will be backed up by 21-year-old freshman point guard Vuk Vulikic of Serbia. Junior guard Christian Agnew joins the squad as a former leading scorer (12.8 ppg) for North Alabama. They even improved their frontcourt by adding Georgia Tech transfer Kristian Sjolund, a 6-foot-8 forward that can hit a pretty consistent perimeter jumper according to the coaching staff. Redshirt sophomore 3-point specialist Adam Hess (Salt Lake Community College) and 6-foot-5 junior guard Emmanuel White (Coastal Bend College) round out the transfer newcomers for the group. Xavier redshirt sophomore transfer Keonte Kennedy, who sat out last year per NCAA transfer rules, is also expected to play an expanded role this year as a 6-foot-5 wing.
Leading the way among the reconfigured team are the top two returning scorers from last year in star senior forward Bryson Williams (17.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and junior guard Souley Boum (12.9 ppg). Williams, an All C-USA First Team selection, is looking to have a monster senior year following a fabulous junior season. Coming as a transfer from San Francisco, Boum quickly became the team’s go-to at the No. 2 spot. He also shot an exceptional 87.8 percent (122-139) from the charity stripe, which was the best in C-USA and ranked No. 21 nationally.
Other returners in the frontcourt include redshirt junior Tydus Verhoeven, senior Eric Vila and junior Efe Odigie. Verhoeven, the 6-foot-9 shot-blocker, became the do-it-all guy for the team inside, finishing the season with 15 blocks, 20 steals, 15 assists and 45 points in 12 starts. Vila started 14 games, primarily at the start of the year, but had inconsistencies in his shot (43 percent FG, 24 percent 3-point). Contrary to his All-Conference Freshman recognition, Odigie averaged only 13.4 minutes per game in a crowded frontcourt last year. He saw his numbers depreciate from a consistent double-double average to a 6.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg standard.
Contrary to the group last year, Terry and his staff believe that this team is made up of team players bought into their respective roles. If they are able to click and the trio of Williams, Boum and Bienemy work out, along with good play from complementary pieces like Kennedy and Verhoeven, the Miners can build something special in year three of the new era.