The UTEP basketball team will face a tough road double this week, tangling with Southern Miss in Hattiesburg on Wednesday before matching up with I-10 rival NM State on Saturday in Las Cruces.
The Golden Eagles (20-6, 9-2 C-USA) and the Aggies (18-9, 12-3 WAC) are a combined 21-2 at home this season, with both losses coming to teams currently ranked in the nation’s top-25. Southern Miss dropped an 89-76 decision to Memphis on Feb. 9 at Reed Green Coliseum. NMSU fell to New Mexico, 68-63, at the Pan American Center on Dec. 19 and has reeled off eight consecutive victories on its home floor since. Ironically, one of the Aggies’ home wins came over Southern Miss, 68-60, on Dec. 1.
Southern Miss has won 12 of its last 14 games and is in the thick of the Conference USA title chase, trailing first-place Memphis by two games.
“They have had a nice year,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “They are very good offensively. They shoot for percentage. They defend at a high level as well. They rebound pretty good for an undersized team.
“They have a lot of newcomers that were left there by Larry Eustachy, outstanding players that were sitting out [last season]. They are very good around the basket, shooting for percentage with [Michael] Craig, [Daveon] Boardingham and [Jonathan] Mills. They finish very well on the block. It’s a very good team.”
Senior forward Dwayne Davis leads Southern Miss, averaging 14.2 points per game. He is a transfer from Midland Junior College. Another transfer, junior guard Jerrold Brooks (Casper College) averages 10.6 points per game.
Four Southern Miss players average between 8.0 and 9.2 points per game, including returnees Neil Watson (9.2 ppg) and Mills (9.1 ppg) off of last year’s NCAA Tournament team.
The Golden Eagles rate second nationally in steals (11.3 avg.) behind VCU (12.3 avg.). Southern Miss is 11th in scoring margin (+13.5 ppg) and field goal percentage (.488), and 20th in rebound margin (+6.7 rpg). Southern Miss leads Conference USA in scoring defense (60.6 ppg), scoring margin, field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage (.383), rebound margin, steals and turnover margin (+3.0).
While the Golden Eagles’ record under first-year head coach Donnie Tyndall looks a lot like it did under Eustachy, the defensive principles have changed.
“They play zone instead of man. That’s been the primary difference,” Floyd said. “It’s a different zone that requires some additional preparation. They would call it a matchup zone. Basically it’s a 1-3-1 that falls back into a 2-3, or a 1-1-3 that becomes a 1-3-1 that becomes a 2-3.”
Last year, Southern Miss yielded 65.1 points per game, holding opponents to a .444 field goal percentage and .348 three-point field goal percentage. Despite the change in defensive philosophy, the numbers are even better this season (60.6 ppg, .401 field goal percentage, .326 three-point field goal percentage).
Southern Miss has also been more efficient offensively in 2012-13, raising its scoring average from 71.4 ppg to 74.0 ppg and its field goal percentage from .415 to .488.
Floyd returns to his hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss. for Wednesday’s game. His late father, Lee, coached the Golden Eagles for 14 seasons (1949-54 and 1962-71) and is the second-winningest coach in school history with 246 victories. The younger Floyd spent two seasons as a walk-on at Southern Miss before finishing his collegiate playing career at Louisiana Tech.
He will be coaching against Southern Miss in Hattiesburg for the third time. On Jan. 23, 1989, Floyd’s New Orleans squad dropped a 79-68 decision to the Golden Eagles. On Feb. 16, 2011, Floyd’s Miners lost to Southern Miss 64-51.