He hasn't reached the heights of the late Don Haskins, but current UTEP head man Tony Barbee certainly has the Miners going in the right direction in just his third year on the job.
Barbee's squad improved by five wins from his first season to last year, when the Miners went 19-14 and were invited to the inaugural College Basketball Invitational.
Now UTEP returns a lot of talent from that team, led by All-American candidate Stefon Jackson, who led Conference USA in scoring in 2007-08 and ranked seventh nationally in the category. Jackson leads a group of seven letterwinners returning, including three starters.
In addition, the Miners get Memphis transfer Kareem Cooper and Mercer transfer Isaac Gordon to add to a group of four freshmen that will fortify the roster.
Jackson will draw a lot of attention from opposing defenses and the media, but this team is definitely more than a one-man show. Barbee has built up the team's talent base and now looks ready to get the Miners to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.
But the pressure will be on Jackson to come through and play like a star while still being a team player. As a junior, Jackson was very efficient, hitting 46.4% from the field, including a 33.3% clip from 3-point range.
Jackson can't get caught up in the hype of him being a top scorer and just let the offense come to him, which it will. As long as Jackson is doing his scoring, the rest of the Miners should fill in nicely around him.
• UTEP's potent offense ranked third in Conference USA in scoring in 2007-08, putting up 76.6 points per game. That average ranked the Miners 40th in the country.
• The Miners were a paltry 3-10 on the road in 2007-08, but six of those losses were by eight points or less, including a five-point loss to Texas A&M and a six-point loss to Memphis.
Strengths: When you have one of the top individual scorers in the nation, putting points on the board isn't a problem. The Miners were one of the most potent offenses in the league last year, and with players that accounted for 69.1% of those points back again in 2008-09, that explosiveness should continue.
The Miners were excellent hanging on to the ball last year while forcing turnovers by the opposition, ranking third in the league in turnover margin at plus-4.06. Easy baskets were created by many of the turnovers that the Miners forced, so the good defense turned into good offense as well.
Weaknesses: The Miners have to be careful not to be too caught up in Stefan Jackson's run to become the top scorer in UTEP history. Some teams have a tendency to become complacent while watching a star player take a number of shots, so the Miners—especially the newcomers—have to remember to play as a team at all times.
To make the next step on the national stage, the Miners have to prove they can win on the road. Coming close a number of times last year while compiling a 3-10 record on the road was good, but a loss is a loss, no matter how close it is. If UTEP is going to grab the attention of the NCAA tournament committee, it needs to pull out a couple of big road victories.
Last Year: 19-14 overall, 8-8 in Conference USA; lost in 9-7 in the Big Ten; lost in first round of College Basketball Invitational.
Head Coach: Tony Barbee; third year at UTEP (33-31).
Quote To Note: "It's good news, and hopefully it's a motivating factor for our players. It's moreso for the fans and the media. But I hope our guys see it and get excited and it drives them to work hard this summer. We have a good team with some pieces in place. Nobody's expectations are going to be higher than our team's."—UTEP coach Tony Barbee on preseason predictions of the NCAA tournament for the Miners.
Strategy And Personnel
Scouting The Newcomers: The Miners will get a major boost from this year's group of newcomers, particularly two Division I transfers who become eligible.
Kareem Cooper is a 7-foot, 290-pound space-eater in the middle who played 57 games for Memphis before transferring prior to the 2007-08 season. Cooper will give the Miners a presence in the middle that they haven't had for a while, and his experience of playing on an Elite Eight team with the Tigers in 2006-07 can only help as UTEP tries to get into the Big Dance.
Isaac Gordon played one year for Mercer, giving him three more years of eligibility at UTEP. A 6-foot 5 inch, 210-pound guard, Gordon can handle the ball as well as score when called upon.
Blaise Ffrench is a 6-foot 1 inch freshman point guard who will vie for playing time running the team. Ffrench dished out 7.4 assists as a senior in high school, showing that he's a pass-first guard that will be good for the Miners.
A pair of Memphis high school products — 6-foot 6 inch swingman Jason Jones and 6-foot 11 inch forward Arnett Moultrie—will provide some depth on the front line for the Miners. Also giving some help to the frontcourt will be 6-foot 8 inch forward Chano Rashiduddin, who will become eligible for the second semester.
Key Early-season Games: The Miners start the season with four straight home games, which should help the team get acclimated to each other. Then, a trip to Anaheim for the 76 Classic brings a matchup with Saint Mary's, followed by a contest against either Cal State Fullerton or Wake Forest. Winning two games would be a good boost for the UTEP program.
A mid-December clash with Texas Tech will be a big one, as will a trip to The Pit to face New Mexico. Beating the Lobos on the road is a difficult accomplishment for any team, so it would really help the Miners' road confidence if they can pull it off.
Program Direction: Coach Tony Barbee has turned things around for the Miners in a hurry. Even without Stefon Jackson next year, the Miners look like they're ready to contend for a Conference USA title on a regular basis. That kind of optimism is certainly the right kind of attitude for a program to have.
Probable Starting Lineup: PG Julyan Stone, SG Randy Culpepper, SF Stefon Jackson, PF Tavaris Watts and C Kareem Cooper
• Stefon Jackson set a Conference USA record for scoring by a junior in 2007-08 with 778 points, breaking the old mark set by Dwyane Wade of Marquette (710).
• Sophomore Julyan Stone's assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.28 was the top mark in the country for a freshman in 2007-08. Stone had more assists than turnovers in all but eight games in his first collegiate season.
• Sophomore Randy Culpepper set both the UTEP and Conference USA records for most 3-pointers by a freshman in 2007-08, hitting 81 from long range.