A lot has changed since Utah and UTEP last met in the 2005 NCAA Tournament. For starters, both have different coaches, as Doc Sadler took the Nebraska job only a year after their Utah defeat and Ray Giacoletti, two years after the Utes' NCAA run, was fired last March. The Miners are now coached by Tony Barbee, who's in his second season there and has a 33-30 record.
This season, the Miners actually bounced back from a mediocre first year under Barbee. They won 19 games and finished tied for sixth in the Conference USA. UTEP actually came within a game of advancing to the conference championship, however, lost to Houston 80-77 -- the Cougars are also playing in the CBI this year.
This season was thought by many to be part two of Barbee's rebuilding project, as the Miners looked to add more depth to their frontcourt after losing Maurice Thomas from last year's squad. UTEP also had to replace its 2nd leading scorer when senior Kevin Henderson graduated. However, there is no denying that this Miners team is far more talented and deeper than last year's, who finished the season only 14-17.
Junior Stefon Jackson is UTEP's leading scorer this season, averaging nearly 24 points per game. That includes a 41 point outing against East Carolina last month. The guard has proven to be a major threat and could pose some match-up problems with Utah. However, the Utes do appear to have a height advantage, as the Miners definitely are deficient at the center spot. While I've not seen them play this year, it does look like UTEP is more suited for playing an up-tempo, smaller ball type of game. That can go two ways for Utah, especially if they're as effective in that regard as they were in 2005 -- their speedy point guard Filiberto Rivera proved to be a tough match for the Utes.
On the season, the Miners really haven't made much noise, though they did come close to shocking then #1 ranked Memphis on the road -- they lost that game 70-64. Outside of that, they own a one point loss to New Mexico at home and a 5 point loss to Texas A&M when the Aggies were ranked 15th in the nation. UTEP does own victories over Houston and Tulsa, both of which will be playing in the inaugural CBI tournament.
This game will be a tough one for the Utes, as it's being played on the road, where they've traditionally struggled this season. However, Utah has done pretty well against better teams in their home gym (UNLV, New Mexico, SDSU and BYU), so this is a winnable game. And while the CBI Tournament is not prestigious, it offers Utah a chance to keep their season going. Which, just a few weeks ago, looked pretty improbable.
Tip-off is set for 7:00 Salt Lake time Wednesday, but it does seem it won't be on TV. Which sucks, since I thought all these games were going to be broadcast on FOX Sports.