When John Calipari left Memphis for Kentucky, Big Blue Nation went crazy. They had a coach who would bring top recruits with him, freshmen who would make an impact on a team immediately. This hadn’t been seen since the Fab Four at Michigan, 20 years before. The entire landscape of the SEC changed, as Kentucky appeared to be the overwhelming favorite for the first time in what has seemed like forever. Two teams overlooked in the whole Calipari situation face off Wednesday night. UTEP, under Cal apprentice Tony Barbee, boast a 5-1 record. With Memphis no longer looming as large, UTEP is one of a host of teams looking to snag a bid from Conference USA. With Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida in the SEC East, not much attention is being paid to the West. However, #25 Mississippi appears to be the early favorite. They have as good a shot to dethrone the predetermined kings of the conference as anyone. Both teams have been impressive early on, and both will be looking to pick up a resume worthy win in December.
The UTEP Miners are paced by a dangerous starting five, one in which every player averages more than 11 points a game. Despite losing their leading scorer from a season ago, the slack has been picked up by junior shooting guard Randy Culpepper, who is dropping 18 per contest. The multi-faceted scorer can connect from anywhere on the court. A good defender and rebounder, Culpepper is not strictly on offensive threat. Joining him in the backcourt is one of the best all-around players in the country, yet very few know his name. Julyan Stone is enjoying a great start. Although he scores a shade over 11 points a game, he’s fifth on the team in scoring. However, he more than makes up for it with his six assists and six rebounds a game. At 6-6, Stone does the majority of his scoring inside the arc, but has three point capabilities. Christian Polk is the third starting guard, and he is a valuable scorer. Because the Miners don’t have a lot of depth, Polk’s consistent play is crucial. He hasn’t exploded for a huge point total yet this season, but he hasn’t had a horrible game, either. Isaac Gordon sees playing time not for his scoring, but because at 6-5, he’s a great rebounder. He’s only 3-11 from the field this season, but hauling in rebounds pays its dividends in playing time.
The frontcourt is keyed by Arnett Moultrie, who is a potent scorer, strong rebounder and underrated defender. Moultrie has to limit his turnovers, but he is too crucial to UTEP’s success to see much time on the bench. Moultrie is the only UTEP starter to not hoist over 10 three pointers. Everyone else hits them routinely. Jeremy Williams joins Moultrie, and at 6-7, he’s four inches shorter. Williams gets to the line more than any other Miner, and is third on the team in rebounding. He gets a lot of his points from second chances off of offensive rebounds. Coming off the bench with Williams is Claude Britten, and at 6-11, 265, he’s easily UTEP’s biggest player, as well as their only bench player who scores more than two points a game (Williams plays starting minutes). Britten is a good rebounder and decent low post scorer. Coach Barbee welcomed troubled forward Derrick Caracter to the team this season. In his first game, he only scored two points and snagged two rebounds, but the former Louisville Cardinal hasn’t played organized basketball in a while. His role will expand as he gains experience. It will be very interesting to see how he performs against a team like Ole Miss. The fifth starter, Wayne Portalatin, doesn’t play often.
Last season, the Rebels of Mississippi missed the scoring that sophomore guard Chris Warren provided after Warren went down with an injury early on. Now a junior, Warren looks sharp, leading the team in scoring at nearly 18 points a game and doling out just over 3 dimes per contest. Still launching three pointers with tremendous frequency, Warren also has the skill necessary to score inside. 2008-09 SEC Freshman of the Year Terrico White is a taller guard with a forward’s skill set, although he’s not afraid to toss up a long ball. Third on the team in rebounding, White is off to a nice start in his sophomore year. Eniel Polynice is very similar to UTEP’s Stone. At 6-5, he’s not the height of your average point guard. But his impressive stat line includes ten points a game and nearly five assists and four rebounds. Polynice is a solid defender as well. Zack Graham finds time because of his ability to knock down threes at an astounding 47%. Unlike most designated sharpshooters, Graham gets in on the rebounding action as well, and isn’t severely limited by his ball handling. Rounding out the backcourt is Trevor Gaskins. Gaskins isn’t a particularly lethal shooter, passer or rebounder, but he does everything well enough to find the court. Gaskins has to improve his shot selection. He’s a paltry 3-28 from beyond the arc already this season. That’s just 11%.
Leading the way in the frontcourt is the impressive sophomore Murphy Holloway. His 6-7 frame is not keeping Holloway from snagging eight boards a game, by far the highest total for any Rebel. At almost 13 points per game, he’s third on the team in scoring, and makes over 60% of his shots from the field. Reginald Buckner is the man directly behind Holloway in the rebounding category, and despite his lackluster scoring ability, he pugnaciously attacks the boards and swats shots with regularity, which is why he starts for Andy Kennedy. DeAundre Cranston is the more offensively-minded forward. Cranston can step out and hit the three, something that is not in Buckner’s bag of tricks. This gives the Rebels two options at forward, offense or defense. Terrance Henry is the final player in the nine man rotation. Henry’s efficiency on offense (he has missed just one of his 11 shots) is the reason he sees time. He’s not a great rebounder, but like Gaskins, he does it well enough to find time.
This is a game that should be close the whole way. Both of these teams have things to prove. UTEP still doesn’t have a win they can point to come March out of conference. Ole Miss beat Kansas State and their one loss is to top ten Villanova, but many still consider Mississippi State the favorites in the SEC West. A win here might not go far in proving otherwise, but make no mistake, UTEP is a very talented team. The Rebels should bag another win at home, 79-72, to continue to move up the rankings and propel themselves toward the top of the SEC food chain.
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