Fresno State Bulldogs (17-16, 9-9 MWC regular season) vs. University of Texas-El Paso Miners (23-10, 12-4 Conference USA)
WHEN: Wednesday, March 19, 6:00 PST
WHERE: Don Haskins Center, El Paso, TX
TV: CBS Sports Network
RADIO: The Fresno broadcast can be heard on the local ESPN affiliate, 940 AM, while the UTEP feed can be found in and around El Paso on 1650 AM or 92.3 FM.
LAST MEETING: The two teams have not met on the hardwood since the 2004-05 season, UTEP's last as a member of the WAC. On February 10, 2005, the Miners won at home, 92-80, on their way to a 24-win season and an NCAA tourney bid.
The bids for the big dance have been handed out, but that won't stop the Bulldogs from dancing on their own terms. The College Basketball Invitational may not have the illustrious history of the NCAA tournament and the NIT, but a brief look at its past champions reveals something of a springboard effect: Virginia Commonwealth followed its 2010 CBI title with a Final Four run in 2011, while others such as Creighton (2011) and Pittsburgh (2012) also earned NCAA bids. Might this be a harbinger of things to come?
The first step in determining the answer will be found in El Paso, against an old foe from WACtion days of yore. The Miners quietly put together a campaign that represented its third straight year of improvement, so to help provide some insight into the match-up, Alex Nicolas of Miner Rush was kind enough to take some time and tell us about what the 'Dogs can expect.
1. How well does a 23-win season fit with what you expected from the Miners in the preseason? Was the team a C-USA contender or ahead of schedule?
In all honesty, before this season many, including us at the Rush, expected nothing less than a conference championship and NCAA appearance based on our returning players, as well as a great incoming recruiting class. But after one of the best recruiting classes in school history never came about and three impact guards were lost on December 28th, 23 wins was a surprise to most. Many around the C-USA knew this team was a serious contender even before the transgressions cut the Miners' depth, but a deep run in the CBI will certainly set the stage for higher expectations next year.
2. For as much success as the Miners had in conference play, it appears the team was unable to solve Southern Mississippi. What was the Eagles' greatest advantage in those two games, and was that a prevalent concern all season?
Guards and rebounding. Southern Miss should have been an NCAA team, and it is an absolute shame they did not get in. They have a stable of veteran guards that wore down the Miners' only point guard, C.J. Cooper, in the quarterfinals of the C-USA tournament. While they are much smaller than UTEP, they outmuscled the Miners in that game, as well, with 18 offensive boards. They did a great job of packing the paint and making UTEP a jump shooting team on defense, something that is key to slowing down the Miners. The team lives by getting to the rim and the free throw line. UTEP held a nine-point lead in the first half of the first match-up on the road, but two Southern Miss bench players, both guards, had career games. Guard depth is UTEP's worst enemy.
3. Vince Hunter and Julian Washburn were both second-team Conference USA selections, while John Bohannon was a third-team choice. I noticed that all three were 6'8" and taller, but what skills do they bring onto the court?
Bohannon is one the more skilled big men in the country. He is a great rebounder, and can also put it on the floor, and has great moves in the post. His leadership has gone to another level since he is the only scholarship senior. Vince Hunter is an absolute monster. He attacks like a guard, dunks like LeBron, and has a special nose for rebounding. If he can develop a mid-range jumper, 7 to 16 feet, keeping him away from the NBA before his senior year will be hard.
Washburn can just flat out do it all. He is one of the best defenders in the country, if not the best, and he has improved his mid-range and outside shots by leaps and bounds. He shot 19 percent from deep last season, but at one point this year that figure was up around 40 percent. Sometimes his offense comes and goes, but he has turned himself into a 15 point a night type of guy when he is on, along with smothering defense that is a constant in every game. Those guys make up the core that has led UTEP this year, and were deserving of the all-conference honors.
4. UTEP was sixth in the nation in three-point defense, but the Bulldogs aren't shy about throwing it up from beyond the arc. Tyler Johnson shot nearly 50% on three-pointers, the best figure in Mountain West action, so who will have the task of slowing him down and how might he do it?
There are a couple things Tim Floyd could have in mind which we have seen throughout the year. First, Washburn might be stuck on a straight man-to-man assignment. He held ECU's Akeem Richmond to 3-of-6 shooting from deep, and 5-of-11 from the field the night after Richmond made 11/18 from deep in the C-USA tournament, and he also has an impressive streak of shutting down the other team's leading scorer. UTEP will probably shade, and try to deny Johnson with either Washburn or C.J. Cooper if they go man. I also wouldn't be suprised to see a box and one, or a triangle and two with Cooper or Washburn shading him. The Miner staff likes to use "gimmick" defenses that are effective, but as we saw in the Florida Atlantic game, that gets them trouble if they don't guard the perimeter properly.
5. The 'Dogs have perhaps just one quality win away from the friendly confines of the Save Mart Center (at Nevada). It's been a long time since they won in El Paso, 11 years, but how does the home crowd stack up within Conference USA these days?
Our crowds make UTEP a high-major environment. We have the best attendance figures in the league, and also boast one the rowdiest student sections in all of mid-major basketball. FAU's Pablo Bertone told me after they came through El Paso that he was shocked by the 11,000 Miner fans that made the Haskins Center the loudest place he has ever played. Mind you, FAU played road games at Duke and Maryland this year. Historically, UTEP is pretty hard to beat in the Don, but for some reason we have dropped three of the last five at home, and have dropped six games at home as well. The city has really rallied behind this team through all the adversity, though and with all seats being just ten dollars for the CBI, I would expect the trend of great crowds to continue Wednesday.