The title of this post probably sounds a tad redundant. Typically a team that finishes tied for second in a conference is going to be a legitimate threat to win the postseason tournament. But somewhere along the way, the Miners have been lost in the shuffle of discussing the NCAA Tournament resumes of UAB and Memphis, both of whom are square on the bubble pending the outcome of the C-USA playoffs.
Well now that East Carolina has fired the first major blow in this tournament by upending the top-seeded Blazers, UTEP is on the hot seat as the favorite. For those casual observers who know Conference-USA as that far away land once dominated by Memphis, no, the Tigers aren't public enemy number one anymore and they aren't the team to beat.
The obvious place to start with UTEP is their star power - more specifically C-USA's version of the human highlight reel in Randy Culpepper:
Lost sometimes in the glare of plays like this is how dynamic of a scoring threat Culpepper has developed into over the years. He's been a top scoring option for UTEP since his sophomore season and has continued to be one in his final year of eligibility. He lit up Texas Tech for 28 points in December, just a few weeks after he hung 32 on New Mexico State. C-USA opponents have felt the sting as well - Culpepper eclipsed the 25-point mark six times in conference play this season.
The Miners are an efficient offensive team to say the least, showing a propensity for scoring in spot-up situations and by moving off the ball. That latter part is key, as UTEP ranked second in the conference during the regular season in percentage of made field goals assisted at over 60% according to Ken Pomeroy. As a team they shot fairly well from the outside (37%), which is impressive considering they attempt in the range of 16 shots per game from beyond the arc.
It's probably in the Miners best interest if they don't get involved in any footraces however, they do play at a higher pace in general, but there is a substantial drop off in their scoring efficiency in transition situations.
Defense is where UTEP needs to be feared. The Miners posted the best defensive efficiency in the conference, along with the highest rate of turnover forced. Furthermore, in case teams get hot with the great equalizer, UTEP held opposing teams to just 31% shooting from beyond the arc, the second best percentage against in Conference-USA.
The Miners defensive prowess extends to the national level, as they rank 23rd nationally in points per possession against based on data from Synergy Sports Technology. Opponents struggle against their excellent perimeter defense, which has the quickness and court sense to cut off open looks in a quick fashion. UTEP had just a 33% field goal against mark in spot-up scenarios, also the same percentage opponents shoot against on all jump shot attempts in half court settings. The size and length that they trot out in the frontcout as well - specifcally John Bohannon, Claude Britten and Jeremy Williams - had turned the Minors into one of the nation's elite teams at defending shot attempts around the rim. They rank in the 90th percentile in all of Division 1, allowing just .77 points per possession in this setting.
Chances are, even with wins over Michigan, Tulsa and Memphis, the Miners will need to win out in order to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament. But, if their 74-47 win over the Tigers a couple weeks ago has taught us anything, it's that UTEP is more than capable of doing just that.