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August 24, 2008


Head coach: Tony Barbee.
Last season: 19-14 overall, 8-8 in Conference USA.
Postseason: Earned bid to College Basketball Invitational; lost to Utah in first round 81-69.
Breakdown: Probable starters | Backcourt | Frontcourt | Offense | Defense | Outlook

BACKCOURT

The Miners welcome back Stefon Jackson, who ranked seventh nationally in scoring last season and should break the school's career scoring record about midway through the season. He entered his name in the NBA Draft, but pulled out before the deadline and decided to return for his senior season.

UTEP guard Stefon Jackson is one of college basketball's leading scorers.

PROBABLE STARTING FIVE
G Julyan Stone, 6-6/Soph.
2.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.5 apg
G Stefon Jackson, 6-5/Sr.
23.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg
G Randy Culpepper, 6-0/Soph.
12.8 ppg, 1.6 spg, 81 3-pointers
C Kareem Cooper, 7-0/Jr.
3.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg at Memphis in 2006-07
F Tavaris Watts, 6-8/Sr.
6.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg
TOP RESERVES
C Claude Britten, 6-11/Soph.
3.6 ppg, 2.2 rpg
F/G Gabriel McCulley, 6-7/Soph.
3.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg
C Wayne Portalatin, 6-10/Soph.
1.2 ppg, 1.5 rpg
Jackson is a pure scorer with an excellent mid-range game. He can slash and score at the rim as well. While he's not particularly adept at shooting from long range (just 35 3-pointers on 33.3-percent shooting), he still manages to get his points because he can put the ball on the floor with either hand and knows how to create space. Jackson is remarkably consistent: He scored at least 15 points in 31 of UTEP's 33 games.

Sophomore Julyan Stone is another returning starter in the backcourt. He led the nation's freshmen in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.28), just ahead of Florida's Nick Calathes. Stone is an excellent defender who wasn't called on to score. In fact, he attempted less than three shots per game. He'll get more opportunities with the departure of guard Marvin Kilgore (12.7 ppg), but mostly he still will be dishing to Jackson and Randy Culpepper.

The probable replacement for Kilgore in the backcourt is Culpepper, the C-USA Sixth Man of the Year. Culpepper ranked third in the conference in steals, seventh in 3-pointers made and 14th in scoring. He started the first six games of the season before becoming the sixth man, and he averaged 14 points coming off the bench. Culpepper better get used to doing his scoring now as a starter.

FRONTCOURT

Senior Tavaris Watts is the only returning starter up front. He averaged 6.9 points and shot only 40.9 percent last season, his first after transferring from junior college. But he showed flashes down the stretch of being the kind of player the Miners will need him to be. Over their final seven games, Watts averaged 11.4 points - including 19 in a big victory over Houston and 14 in the CBI loss to Utah.

The big reason for excitement in El Paso, and we do mean big, is Memphis transfer Kareem Cooper. The 7-foot, 290-pound Cooper is expected to make an immediate impact in C-USA after sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules. He practiced all season with the Miners, so the coaches know what they're getting. Cooper has remarkable bounce for a player his size, and he can score on the block and shoot it from range. In just 10.8 minutes per game with Memphis, he averaged 3.9 points and 3.3 rebounds for a team that went 33-4.

Sophomore center Claude Britten (6-11/260) is a more-than-capable backup who would start for plenty of C-USA programs. As he worked his way into shape during last season, his playing time increased. His season averages of 3.6 points and 2.2 rebounds don't look that impressive, but consider they were accomplished in only 8.6 minutes per game and you get a more accurate picture.

Britten was one of two Miners (Stone was the other) who were part of a C-USA all-star team that played three games in China this summer, and he gave fans a taste of what could be this season. He had 10 points and nine rebounds in just 14 minutes in the opener, and he followed up with 17 points and eight rebounds in just 17 minutes.

OFFENSE

Similar to C-USA kingpin Memphis, the Miners run the dribble-drive motion offense. They want to play a fast-paced, up-tempo game. But they also have more size and depth in the post than any team in the league. Consequently, they'll try to utilize those weapons more than most teams that run the dribble-drive motion.

DEFENSE

UTEP is a man-to-man team, and it will look to extend its defense this season with what coaches feel is a deeper roster. The Miners didn't press much last season, but there's a good chance they'll extend and play more 94 feet. They also probably will trap more with their guards to try to take advantage of their length and athleticism.

UTEP has no problems on the offensive end, where Jackson is one of the nation's premier scorers and Culpepper already is a good second option. No, the biggest problem for the Miners is on the defensive end. How that problem is addressed is the key to the team's postseason aspirations. UTEP ranked last in C-USA and 268th nationally in scoring defense, surrendering 73.2 points per game. Their guards gamble a lot on the perimeter, and they haven't had a major shot-blocking presence behind them. If Cooper provides that element and the Miners get out and press 94 feet successfully, UTEP at least should make the NIT.

SHOES TO FILL

Kilgore. Kilgore was the leading assist man (5.0), third-leading scorer (12.7 ppg) and third-leading rebounder (4.7). That's a lot of production across the board for the Miners to make up this season.

MUST STEP UP

Stone. UTEP surrounds its young point guard with plenty of quality scoring options, but it's still up to him to run the offense and prove last year's assist-to-turnover ratio was no fluke.

IMPACT NEWCOMER

Cooper. The UTEP coaches believe Cooper can play beyond college. He could be the single biggest surprise in C-USA this season.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Tuesday at 8:15 a.m. ET and can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.



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