2008-09 UTEP Basketball Preview: #75
Overall Rank: #75
Conference Rank: #4 C-USA
2007-08: 19-14, 8-8, 6th
2007-08 postseason: CBI
UTEP slipped into the CBI last year and Coach Tony Barbee hopes to move up a level or two as far as postseason tournaments are concerned. The talent is there, but this is a team that has struggled to string wins together and struggled even more to win on the road. To many an 8-8 conference record was disappointing and the team certainly could have done better. If the defense does not improve and the road woes continue, the Miners will underachieve once again.
Marvin Kilgore and Victor Ramalho are the two starters who have run out of eligibility. Kilgore did a little bit of everything during his two years in El Paso and averaged 12.8 points, 5.0 assists and 4.6 rebounds during his senior campaign. The Miners will not have an individual who can do everything as well as Kilgore did. The loss of Ramalho, along with Jeremy Sampson, is a cause for concern in the frontcourt and much of the depth in the paint will have to be picked up by underclassmen. Corey Speight, Manuel Cass and Pearson Smith have also wrapped up their careers with the Miners.
The newcomer who will make the biggest impact this year is Kareem Cooper. The former Memphis center averaged 3.9 points and 3.3 rebounds in limited playing time for the Tigers two years ago. The 7-footer is a monster under the basket and will immediately give the Miners a big time scoring threat in the paint. Arnett Moultrie will likely be an important backup under the basket. The 6-11 freshman will develop into a decent scorer, but for now UTEP will need him to play some solid defense and grab some rebounds. Chano Rashiduddin will be asked to do the same off the bench. In the backcourt, Blaise Ffrench…and no that is not a typo…will be very important to the success of the team. The point guard will be the backup right away and on a team that hopes to reach the NCAA Tournament, Ffrench will have to play at a high level when the starter needs a break. Isaac Gordon, a transfer from Mercer, and the tough Jason Jones will add depth on the wings.
Who to Watch:
There is one player on UTEP that every college basketball fan should watch. Stefon Jackson ranked seventh in the nation last year averaging 23.6 points per game. And the 6-5 senior out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is not simply a shooter. Jackson scores a majority of his points around the basket and reached the free-throw line an amazing 9.2 times per game last year. Jackson even led the team in rebounds the last two years. His senior year should be his best yet. And the scary thing is the fact that Jackson has a couple talented perimeter mates returning. Julyan Stone and Randy Culpepper both had superb freshmen campaigns. Stone led the nation among freshman with a 2.13 assist-to-turnover ratio. He will not score often, but with Jackson and Culpepper on the court, the last thing UTEP needs Stone to do is score. Culpepper put his name in the books as well, hitting a freshman Conference-USA record 81 three-pointers. Culpepper is better suited to be a sharpshooter off the bench just like he was last year, but he could be just as effective as a starter. Either way, Culpepper will hit a ton of long balls. Gabriel McCulley was not as productive as Stone and Culpepper as a freshman, but the 6-7 wing showed plenty of potential when he was given the opportunity.
Tavaris Watts was the leading scorer among forwards and centers averaging 6.9 points per game. If all goes as planned, Watts will give that job off to Cooper and spend his time doing the dirty work under the basket. Sophomores Claude Britten and Wayne Portalatin are pretty inexperienced, but they will get the chance to be the main backups for the big men. Much of this team is young, but at least they have experience. If Stone and Culpepper can continue to improve as sophomores and if Cooper can step in and live up to his potential, UTEP will be thinking about an NCAA berth. Yet, in an improved conference, the fight for the second spot behind Memphis will be fierce and winning some games on the road will be a necessity.
Projected Post-season Tournament: NIT
Projected Starting Five:
Julyan Stone, Sophomore, Guard, 2.8 points per game
Randy Culpepper, Sophomore, Guard, 12.8 points per game
Stefon Jackson, Senior, Guard, 23.6 points per game
Tavaris Watts, Senior, Forward, 6.9 points per game
Kareem Cooper, Junior, Center, DNP last season