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
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