Hilltoppers vs. UTEP Preview with Alex Nichols of MinerRush.com


While the Conference USA blogging landscape isn’t too outrageously large, there is a collective comradery with those who do blog in the conference. Ever since day one, one of the most fun sites that we have interacted with is SBNation’s Miner Rush. We ran a couple Q&A’s with them in the past, and today they come back to our pages to discuss WKU/UTEP hoops, the first of what is probably going to be the best basketball rivalry the Tops have during their C-USA tenure, with the esteemed and storied history of both programs.

Alex Nicholas takes my questions head on and gives you everything you need to know from the Miner perspective heading into tomorrow night.

Wave The Red Towel: There were high hopes for the Miners coming into the season, and for the most part, they’ve lived up to them, losing only to the 5-0 LA tech. But, even with a 4-1 record, it seems consistency is something UTEP is struggling with. What’s leading to the inconsistencies?

Alex Nichols: Yup, you hit it right on the head. Inconsistency has been a nasty and often used word this season, and it’s been mainly on the offensive end.
At the start of the year, Vince Hunter was Miner fans’ Wooden Award Nominee – shouldering the scoring load, and grabbing every rebound in the gym. It appeared his mates were starting getting used to that, which led to slow starts, and the Miners playing from behind against every major out of conference test.
Now in mid-January, with guys like Earvin Morris emerging, UTEP appears to be turning the “offensive roles” corner of each guy in the rotation, but the final exam on the improvement takes place at Diddle. The Miners are back to their elite defending ways, if they can crack the consistency code on offense in terms of just getting it inside once a possession (even against a zone) which they have been doing lately, watch out C-USA bros.

WTRT: Vince Hunter, Earvin Morris & Cedrick Lang are the leading scorers for the Miners. But, of the three of those, who is the sparkplug to the offense. The guy that, as he goes, UTEP goes?

AN: Hands down, with no argument, over the past seven games its been Earvin Morris.  A JUCO transfer, Morris was a guy who did it early in the year off the bench, and since being defensively trusted into the starting lineup has proven to be the consistent spark plug. He is averaging three makes from three in the past seven games, and is one of UTEP’s top play makers, and finishers in the open floor.
UTEP is 5-0 when he starts, and not only can he score, but is a pest on defense when teamed with Julian Washburn out on the perimeter, which is proven to be problematic for smaller guards with his length, and slick pick-pocket skills. Not only was he one of Tim Floyd’s 2014 recruiting steals, he has been a important Floyd chess piece to cure the offensive woes.

WTRT: Who’s the Miner that, although he might not put up the flashiest numbers, is key to UTEP success?

AN: True freshman guard Omega Harris does sooooo much for UTEP defensively out on the perimeter, and in CTF’s (Coach Tim Floyd’s) system, he really just lets the offense come to him, especially during clutch situations. Harris was a highly touted prospect, who scored a ton of points in high school, and will become a major scorer for the Miners, but has thrived in his role on this team to effect opposing guards with his speed and quickness, and make the key offensive play when the offense comes his way. It seems that Harris’ offensive game is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode on the regular, but being a glue guy who creates turnovers, and takes care of the ball in key pressure situations is what Harris does that turns UTEP into a league favorite.

WTRT: What’s the UTEP view of the Tops coming into this game? What are Miner fans looking forward to exploiting, and on the flip side, what are they worried about getting exploited of?

AN: Like any other C-USA team, Miner fans will feel the need to attack the paint, and turn UTEP’s front court depth into a problem for other teams where every rebound, and point goes the Miners’ way.  In WKU’s match up case, I can speak on behalf of Miner Nation in saying while we can hang in a shootout/track meet or whatever you wanna call it, I wouldn’t want to be in one with WKU draining three after three at home. And its not as simple as jumping out to a huge lead on WKU either: the Tops have proved that doesn’t mean anything, with WKU’s experience and the way T.J. Price, and George Fant can fill it up efficiently. So what it turns into is a cliche’ 40 minute game for UTEP that will force them to be consistent in every phase against a team that will punch back with a crowd behind them.  WKU could exploit the Miners ability to score for 40 minutes, but it can also parlay into UTEP’s consistent ability to defend for 40 minutes with multiple defense’s and ways to make you play left handed with match ups. I think all strengths can be evened out in this one, and the team who executes their strengths in stretches better than the other wins.  And oh yeah, Vince Hunter has a sprained knee.

WTRT: If you’re Tim Floyd, what are your 3 keys to defeating WKU?

AN: I’m using my defense’s and top defenders’ to take Price, and Fant from scoring and touching the ball. I’m at least plus-five on the boards with an edge in second chance points, and I make more free throws than you attempt. That is Floyd’s MO with this core group every game it seems, more so on the road.

WTRT: Prediction time! How do you see things going in Bowling Green?

AN: With my bright Orange Goggles on, I see five Miners in double figures, and a 77-60 UTEP win, with both Fant and Price scoring no more than 12 points and adding four boards each, respectively…

But, the reality slap is WKU has been scary good lately, and surging while UTEP is just starting to fully find themselves on both ends. It’s hard for me to realistically pick a winner in college basketball sometimes, and this is one of them, but I will predict the game will decided in an classic battle that goes down to the final moments with both teams scoring in the mid-to-high 60’s with a chance of a well deserved #32 jersey hung from the rafters.

We wanna thank Alex for taking the time to answer some questions and help lay out the lay of the Miner land. If you ever need your fix of UTEP news and analysis (you’ve gotta know your enemy), MinerRush.com is an excellent source.