EL PASO, TEXAS - The UTEP basketball team faced long odds after losing three scholarship guards in late December.
Instead, the Miners rallied to produce one of the most inspirational seasons in school history, fashioning 23 wins and finishing 12-4 in Conference USA play, a game behind the co-leaders.
UTEP was 20-7 overall and 10-2 in league play, tied for first place, heading into a key late-season matchup at Southern Miss (22-5, 9-3) on Feb. 22. The Miners were up by 12 points (31-19) late in the first half and by nine points (42-33) early in the second period.
After that, the wheels kind of fell off and the Golden Eagles rallied for a 77-68 victory. It was the start of a 3-4 finish to the season where the Miners dropped three closely contested games to C-USA co-champions Southern Miss (twice) and Tulsa, as well as to Fresno State in the first round of the CBI.
In the end, the Miners' lack of backcourt depth may have finally caught up with them. C.J. Cooper played more minutes (1,075) than he did in his first two seasons combined. He shot 5-for-29 from the field in the last three games. Julian Washburn played a career-high 1,170 minutes. They averaged 35.9 and 35.6 minutes, respectively, in C-USA play as coach Tim Floyd had few other options to turn to.
Floyd and his staff made the most of what they had to work with when the team's makeup changed dramatically shortly after Christmas. They employed a gigantic starting lineup that gave opponents fits. When the team won eight straight conference games from mid-January to early February, including an unprecedented 5-0 road start, fans began to dream of conference titles and NCAA Tournament berths. It wasn't meant to be.
"I got greedy like the whole town of El Paso and wanted more," Floyd said. "I wanted an NCAA Tournament bid. You look at what we did [against Fresno State], and we probably wouldn't have deserved it. I'm proud that our guys didn't fold in December. I thought we had some guys get better. I thought we had a couple of guys who maybe didn't finish as strong as they liked or as strong as we would've liked."
Washburn certainly finished strong, scoring in double figures in all three postseason games. He led the team in scoring (13.1 ppg) while raising his three-point field goal percentage from .191 to .364 and his free throw percentage from .700 to .787. He'll begin his senior year ranked 18th in school history with 1,186 points.
Vince Hunter just missed breaking Randy Culpepper's freshman scoring record, clearly hampered by a jammed thumb late in the year. Cooper put together solid numbers across the board before hitting the wall in the final week. Cedrick Lang was his usual reliable self, averaging 6.5 points and 5.4 rebounds as the Miners' sixth man. Matt Willms was most productive in the last month of the season, averaging 7.2 points over the last nine games.
"Matt played the entire year with a torn labrum as one of our eight scholarship players," Floyd said. "He will have surgery very quickly in the next week or so. It's a five-month recovery, which is going to take him out of the weight room that he desperately needs. But we hope he'll be an improved player, and we hope the rest of them will come back and improve next year."
On paper, the Miners will return eight of their top nine scorers next season. The exception is John Bohannon, who will go down as one of the top players in school history statistically with 1,204 points, 825 rebounds and 163 blocks. Bohannon and Floyd didn't always see eye-to-eye over the last four seasons, but Floyd made it clear he's sorry to see the big man go.
"Our hope would be that John Bohannon would become a graduate of the university and try to make something of himself outside of basketball," Floyd said. "We'll try to stay on top of our guys this offseason in all areas – personal improvement, academics -- and we'll continue to recruit as a staff."
The Miners landed three high school standouts during November's early signing period, and continue to look for more.
"We signed a young man, Omega Harris, from Oklahoma who lost in the state finals the other night," Floyd said. "I don't know if he's going to be player of the year in the league and the state. If not he will be number two. But we think he's a very fine player.
"We signed another guard from Lafayette, Louisiana [Trey Touchet] that lost in the state finals and won state a year ago. He was player of the year in the state as a junior. We think he'll help us in the backcourt.
"We signed another young man out of Taft High School, Chris Sandifer, who is a wing player. He can shoot it and he's a great athlete. He had 51 [points] in a game this year. He's a talent."
The first day that teams can sign players this spring is April 16. Floyd and his staff are hard at work trying to bolster the 2014-15 roster.
"We have added a power wing commitment and another guy who's a point guard commitment that I can't speak about because they haven't signed," he said. "They both have won at a high level, which I like. We may have addressed a lot of our needs there. We may take another guard though. We'll talk about what our needs are as a staff and we'll have exit meetings with our players in about three days after this thing has passed."
The Miners should be one of the favorites in Conference USA next season, along with Louisiana Tech. Tulsa departs for the American Athletic Conference, along with East Carolina and Tulane. Middle Tennessee and Southern Miss lose a bunch of seniors. Western Kentucky joins the league. The Hilltoppers are a wild card, coming off a 20-win season with their top four scorers due back.
UTEP will tackle a loaded 2014-15 non-conference schedule.
"We've got Washington State rolling in here next year," Floyd said. "We've got Arizona rolling in here. We're at Colorado State. We're in a big tournament out in Anaheim [over Thanksgiving]. We're going to continue to try to build our schedule. We'll have younger guards next year and we'll have some older players that should be ready to go and try to compete for an NCAA berth."
In order to take the next step in 2014-15, the Miners will have to re-establish a home court advantage that was lacking this year. UTEP tied its second-most losses in the Haskins Center (seven) but nearly made up for it by going 8-2 on the road. The Miners averaged 8,088 fans at home, but had over 11,000 for three of their last four regular season games.
"Our crowds were phenomenal all year long," Floyd said. "They should be encouraged that we have the majority of these guys back next year and there will be new additions coming. We hope to improve again. The bottom line is you've got to try to win your conference and conference tournament to have a bid."
Floyd was asked how he wants the fans to remember the 2013-14 UTEP Miners.
"A team that was really a great road team and a team that gave some people a lot of hope when it didn't appear that we had hope back in December," he said. "Hope is a great thing. People have to have something to look forward to, and I think they have a lot to look forward to next year because of the number of returners.
"And I think it can also be looked upon as what could have been. What was here, what was signed, what left, and the fact we had 23 wins [showed] that maybe it was pointed absolutely in the right direction. What could've been didn't happen, and we're going to continue to work to make those things happen in the future."