EL PASO, TEXAS – The UTEP basketball team will ring in the new year with the start of Conference USA action on Friday at the Don Haskins Center. The Miners (8-5) will take on Rice (5-8) at 7 p.m.
“They are all important in conference play,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “Rice arguably had the best win in our league in non-conference play at New Mexico. They have showed that they can put points on the board. We want to get it started off correctly.”
The Miners had their hands full with the Owls in the 2014-15 regular season finale at the Haskins Center. UTEP needed a rally in the final minutes to secure a 68-65 win and the number two seed in the C-USA Tournament.
Both teams have a different look this year. The Owls are led by newcomers Marcus Evans (19.8 ppg) and Egor Koulechov (19.0 ppg).
Evans, a freshman guard from Chesapeake, Va., has won four of the last five C-USA Freshman of the Week awards. He leads C-USA and ranks first nationally among all freshmen in scoring. Evans also tops C-USA in steals (2.0 spg). Koulechov, a native of Volgograd, Russia and an Arizona State transfer, is first in C-USA in minutes (33.9 avg.), second in scoring, third in free throw percentage (.821), eighth in rebounding (7.4 rpg) and ninth in three-point field goal percentage (.398).
Rice’s top four scorers are newcomers, including freshman forward Marquez Letcher-Ellis (8.4 ppg) and freshman guard Connor Cashaw (7.6 ppg). The Owls also have holdovers Max Guercy (7.4 ppg), Andrew Drone (6.8 ppg) and Bishop Mency (4.1 ppg), who all started at least 29 games a year ago.
UTEP has regained some swagger following a five-game losing skid, blowing out Sam Houston State (87-68) and UT Rio Grande Valley (85-64) in succession.
“We were not very good defensively [in the losing streak],” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We were not very good on the defensive board. We have had back-to-back wins. I don’t know if those opponents reflect what we’re going to see against the upper echelon in our league. We’re still learning about our team. We do feel like offensively at times we can be pretty productive. But in terms of the halfcourt [game], how good are we going to be? That’s always been a strength of my teams. This year we’re still working on it and trying to progress.”
The Miners are 8-2 in Conference USA openers, but they have lost their last two home openers to Charlotte in 2014 (73-68) and LA Tech in 2015 (58-45). Since then UTEP has reeled off eight consecutive C-USA home victories.
Coach Floyd will keep his team focused and separated from New Year’s Eve distractions by putting it in a hotel on Thursday night.
“Imagine that,” he said with a smile. “It’s called 39 years of experience and understanding young people. We’ll treat it as a road game. We’ll have film for the guys to watch. The movie will be called ‘Rice Owls.'”
The Miners will be playing on New Year’s Day for the first time since 2006.
Friday’s game will feature a special halftime performance by the Russian Bar Trio. RB3 has appeared on America’s Got Talent Season 3, The Oprah Show and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Tickets are available by calling 747-5234 or visiting ticketmaster.com.