Overall Rank: #80
Conference Rank: #3 Conference USA
2008-09: 23-14, 10-6
2008-09 postseason: CBI
Coach: Tony Barbee (56-45 at UTEP, 56-45 overall)
On a national level Stefon Jackson never got the credit he deserved. Jackson ended the 2008-2009 campaign averaging 24.5 points per game and as Conference USA’s all-time leading scorer. Replacing him will take more than one player, but Jackson was surrounded by a relatively young team and the future looks very bright.
Key Losses: C Kareem Cooper, G Jason Jones, G Stefan Jackson, F Tavaris Watts
The most important newcomers, and what makes this team a legitimate contender in the conference, are all transfers. Derrick Caracter is more famous for his shortcomings at Louisville than anything else, but he can be a great player if Coach Tony Barbee can get the best out of him. Christian Polk, a transfer from Arizona State, had a great freshman campaign for the Sun Devils and will provide the Miners with another quality outside shooter. Jeremy Williams, a power forward, and Myron Strong, a point guard, are both junior college transfers who have enough experience to at least be capable bench players. The lone incoming freshman is Marcus Ruppel, who will likely have to spend the year learning the ropes from the more experienced players.
Replacing Jackson’s scoring will be the biggest issue for the perimeter, but Randy Culpepper is back and ready to help out. Culpepper averaged 17.5 points per game last year and is a prolific outside shooter. The 6-0 junior started getting more aggressive going to the basket last year as well and that turned him into a dynamic scoring threat. Gabriel McCulley and Jason Jones are both experienced wings who earned a handful of starts last season. It is likely that Polk will secure the starting job on the wing opposite of Culpepper, but McCulley can hit the glass effectively and Jones will do a little bit of everything.
Kareem Cooper left the program after 21 games last year and Tavaris Watts only played in 24 games, so the Miners are used to playing without those two. In their absence Arnett Moultrie emerged as the team’s go-to-guy under the basket. As a freshman he tallied 8.8 points and a team high 8.2 rebounds per contest. With a year of experience under his belt, Moultrie is ready to turn into a superstar. He is a 6-11 power forward who can step outside and hit the three-pointer and that makes him impossible to defend. He will either back down smaller opponents or shoot over them. Moultrie can only play at the four spot if Claude Britten and Wayne Portalatin can manage most of the minutes at the five. However, they only need to hold down that job until Caracter is eligible in December.
Who to Watch:
Jackson and Culpepper got all the headlines while UTEP was heading to the CBI Finals, but it is Julyan Stone who really makes this team tick. Last year he dished out 6.4 assists per game and only turned the ball over 2.2 times. At 6-6, Stone can see over most players and find open teammates that other ball handlers would not even be able to see. He is not much of a scorer, but on a team that has plenty of scoring options, he does not need to even think about scoring all that often.
This team might be a year away from great things, especially considering that they do not have a senior on the roster, but this year could be better than last. They will not be on par with Memphis, but the Miners could find themselves in second place in C-USA and possibly on the bubble if the non-conference portion of their season goes well. Even if they fail to reach the NCAA Tournament, this group should take a step up from last year and go to the NIT.
Projected Post-season Tournament: NIT
Projected Starting Five:
Julyan Stone, Junior, Guard, 5.6 points per game
Randy Culpepper, Junior, Guard, 17.5 points per game
Christian Polk, Junior, Guard, DNP last season
Arnett Moultrie, Sophomore, Forward, 8.8 points per game
Claude Britten, Junior, Center, 4.3 points per game