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MinerManiac's Corner

by Mark Hatch

August 2rth, 2003

The 2002-03 season was a bad one for the UTEP Miner basketball team and their fans. How bad? The team won only six games. It lost 24 games, eclipsing the previous single season loss record of 22, set the previous year. Among the teamís losses were home court set backs against Columbia, Alcorn State, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and Air Force. The team also extended its record road losing streak to 28 games. After two consecutive seasons of record losses, you would think that Miner basketball fans would be dreading the arrival of the 2003-04 basketball season.

Surprisingly, Miner hoops fans are excited about the upcoming year. Head coach Billy Gillispie appears well on his way to cleaning up the mess left behind by former head coach Jason Rabedeaux. Only one significant player has departed from last yearís team, leading rebounder Justino Victoriano (8.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg). Last seasonís leading scorers, shooting guard Gio St Amant (13.6 ppg) and center/power forward John Tofi (12.9 ppg) return as sophomores. Four new JC transfers promise to give the team an immediate boost, led by point guard Filberto Rivera, the NJCAA Player of the Year, and small forward/shooting guard Omar Thomas, who led the NJCAA in scoring (36.1 ppg) and was second in rebounding (17.0 rpg). Gillispie will start the season w/ 12 scholarship players, one below the maximum of 13, a luxury he did not enjoy when he started w/ just 9 scholarship players at the beginning of last season.


There are only two players that right now appear to be a lock for a starting spot next season. One is 6-8 SO C/PF John Tofi. Tofi had a very impressive freshman year, finishing as the teamís second leading scorer w/ 12.9 ppg and second leading rebounder at 5.7 rpg. He was the teamís most consistent player, and hit 48.9% from the field and 68.6% from the line. He is very good down on the block, where he has some nice post moves and a soft touch. He does need to get a little stronger on the boards and from the line. He is the only true inside player the Miners will have next season, so he needs to stay out of foul trouble.

In my opinion the most likely starter at the power forward spot is 6-6 SR SF/PF Roy Smallwood. Smallwood was on a medical redshirt most of last season after tearing an ACL just six games in to the year. I tab Roy as a starter because of his experience, talent, and the lack of inside players on this team, but he could very easily find himself sitting on the bench. The former WAC Freshman of the Year has seen his productivity decline since surprising so many people in his initial season, as his scoring has dropped from 13.4 ppg as a freshman to 6.0 ppg as a senior before his injury. He did manage to average 7.2 rpg in his shortened season, but only shot 35% from the field and 50% from the line. I have heard that Smallwoodís development was retarded by his spite for Rabedeaux, and that he looks the better in the weight room and gym than he ever has in the past. I hope that this is true, but Iíve given up waiting for Roy to live up to the potential he showed as a freshman.

I believe that 6-5 JR SF/SG Omar Thomas, an incoming JC transfer, will get the nod at the small forward spot. Thomas led the junior college ranks in scoring last season, averaging 36.1 ppg, and was second in rebounding w/ 17.0 rpg. He is the only player in junior college history to score over 2000 points and grab over 1000 rebounds in his JC career. He shot an impressive 55% from the field and 83% from the line. Thomasí specialty on offense is the mid-range game, and he is known to hustle after every loose ball. There are some questions on his athleticism, defense, and outside shooting ability, but itís hard to argue w/ his success in junior college. Thomas, with his scoring ability, might also start at shooting guard, where he will definitely see some time, while his rebounding ability might earn him some minutes at power forward.

In order for Thomas to earn the starting small forward spot he will have to beat out last yearís starter, 6-7 JF SF Thomas Gerhke. Gehrke joined the team in mid-season last year, coming from Brazil in order to do so. He struggled at times, averaging 7.6 ppg on 34.4% shooting from the field and only 11.5% shooting from three-point range. This is not surprising, as he had to adjust to both life in the US and to Div 1 basketball. I have had many close to the program tell me that Gehrke, who was an outstanding shooter in Brazil, will be much improved this season.

Another incoming JC transfer, 6-8 SO C/PF Brent Murphy, might earn the starting power forward spot, and will definitely see time at both power forward and center. As a freshman at Lon Morris College last season Murphy averaged 11 points and 6 boards a game while shooting 60% from both the field and from behind the arc. In addition to his shooting touch Murphy is expected to bring size down low on the defensive end of the court. Unfortunately he is not comfortable under the basket offensively, preferring to shoot outside.

Jason Williams, a 6-5 SO SG/SF from Kilgore College, should see time at a variety of positions next season. The multi-talented Williams averaged 13.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.2 steals and 0.6 blocks as a freshman last season at Kilgore, shooting 51% from the field but only 62% from the line. An outstanding athlete, he is a strong defended as well. While it is possible that he might start, I see him coming off of the bench and contributing in a very big way instead.

Coming off of the bench, primarily at the power forward spot, will be 6-6 SR SF/PF Darius Mattear. Mattear is an amazing athlete, but lacks skills on the offensive end, and Iím not convinced that he always played hard. During a three game stretch last season when he started in place of an injured John Tofi, Mattear stepped in and played extremely well, averaging 9 points and 12 rebounds. On the season, however, he was only able to manage 3.5 ppg and 4.6 rpg, playing less than 17 minutes per game despite a thin bench. Expect his playing time to diminish some this season, but he should still see some time, as this squad is thin inside.

Deep on the bench will be 6-7 JR PF Joe Devance. The local product averaged 3.0 points and 1.9 rebounds in 10.3 minutes of play per game last season. Even though he did show a little improvement by yearís end, the increase in talent on this yearís squad will likely hamper his chances at improving those numbers.

Rounding out the frontcourt will 6-10 FR C Nathan Nixon. Nixon, a walk-on, averaged 14 points and 10 boards a game last year for Bandera (TX) HS, but Bandera High is a small school in a small school conference. Nixon rarely, if ever, was able to play against anyone anywhere near his size, and as a result lacks the post skills one would desire in a player that tall. On the bright side, word is that Nixon is a great kid and a hard worker, meaning that somewhere down the line he might really be able to contribute quality minutes to the team. Unfortunately I donít see that happening this season.


Along w/ Tofi, 6-1 JR PG Filberto Rivera is one of only two players who appears to have a starting position all wrapped up. Rivera, a JC transfer, led Southeastern (IA) CC to the NJCAA title game last season, earning tournament MVP honors. Even more impressive is the fact that Rivera, who averaged 16.2 points, 6.7 assists, and 2.6 steals per game last year, was a first team NJCAA All-American and the NJCAA Player of the Year. The quick point guard is an excellent leader, an outstanding passer and penetrator, and is continually improving his outside shooting ability. Look for Rivera to make a huge impact on the team and the league this year.

I expect 6-3 SO SG Giovanni St Amant to fill the other starting backcourt spot. Gio played extremely well last year, setting UTEP freshman records for highest scoring average (13.6), most points in a season (407), most games scoring 20 or more points (7), highest free throw percentage (82.8%), points in a single game (26 against Hawaii on Jan 2), and assists in a single game (9 against Tennessee St on Dec 21). His 13.6 ppg led the team. Gio is quick, can penetrate, and is effective at creating his own shot. He does need to work on his outside shot. Thomas and Williams are also possibilities to start here, but I believe that Gio will retain his starting position.

Chris Craig, a 6-1 SR PG, got off to a horrendous start last season. He committed 9 turnovers in an early season game against Texas Tech, and had many more turnovers than assists after his first few games. He finally settled down and played solidly the second half of the season, and wound up averaging 7.9 ppg and 3.4 apg. He is a good shooter, leading the team last season in 3 point field goal percentage at 43.0%, 48.4% in conference play. He is not an effective penetrator nor playmaker, but after his early season problems did make good decisions. I donít believe that he is starting material, but should be effective backing up both guard positions.

The most pleasant surprise of last season would have to be the play of 5-8 SR SG Omar Duran. I expected Duran to be a total bust last season, and through the first six games I appeared to be correct. During that sixth game Roy Smallwood got hurt, and Duran took his starting spot in game seven. He responded w/ 18 points, and played big in several others games during the season. He ended up averaging 10.3 ppg, making 79 3-point shots along the way, one short of the UTEP single season record. While his lack of playmaking ability hurts him at his size, he is a remarkable shooter. With the added depth on this yearís team he will not get the minutes he did last season, but will come off of the bench at key times as a 3-point specialist.

There will also be several walk-ons in the backcourt this season. A couple may see some time at the end of blowouts, but for the most part they will only be used to help the team in practice. The walk-ons include 6-2 guard Mark Duncan from Odessa College; Cedric Sinitambirivoutin, a 6-4 SG from Fort Scott Community College; Josh Washington, a 6-0 PG/SG from Mount Zion Academy in North Carolina; 6-2 SG Josh Johnston from of Lon Morris College; and three backcourt players who practiced w/ the team last season: Josh Gutierrez, J.D. Hampton and Juan Rivas.


Things look much better for the Miners this season than they did last year, when the Miners had little talent and no depth. The addition of five new scholarship players and the maturation of players like St Amant and Tofi should change that.

The strength of the team will be in the backcourt and wing positions, where there appears to be an amazing amount of talent and depth. Rivera, St Amant, Thomas, Gehrke, Williams, Craig, and Duran will all be fighting for minutes at these positions. The weakness will be inside, where only John Tofi is a true post player. If Tofi gets into foul trouble we will have no inside presence. Rebounding and interior defense will definitely be a major concern this season.

With the increase in talent and depth, the Miners should be able to produce a winning season. I am predicting that the team will win 16 of 17 games this year, and finish around 6th place in the conference. They should also be able to break through and win a game on the road, something they haven Ďt done in two plus seasons. If Gillispie and his staff can bring in another good recruiting class look for them to challenge for a post-season berth next year.

E-Mail the Author: Mark Hatch




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