In recent years, no opponent has given the University of Utah basketball team more problems than the University of Texas-El Paso. The Miners have beaten the
Utes in 16 of their last 19 meetings, going back nine years. Or, to put it another way, the Miners have won seven of the last eight meetings in this series.Any way you cut it, the Miners have owned the Utes.
With that in the mind, Utah meets UTEP tonight in a locally televised game in the Huntsman Center - beginning at 7:35 - with plenty riding on the outcome.
Utah, fresh from a 12-point win over New Mexico Thursday, is 14-1 overall and 3-0 in Western Athletic Conference play. A win for the Utes tonight would 1) keep them in first place in the WAC standings, 2) extend their winning streak to 12 games, and 3) likely push them into the national rankings for the first time in 10 years (they were 26th in this week's Associated Press poll).
The Utes are on a roll, and Coach Rick Majerus thinks they've earned a big turnout for tonight's game.
"If we don't get 15,000 fans (tonight), I'm in the wrong place," said Majerus following Thursday's win. "I would feel sorry for the kids."
Some 13,170 fans turned out for the New Mexico game, nearly 2,000 short of a sellout.
For its part, UTEP, a 16-point loser to BYU Thursday night, is 10-3/2-1 and trying to keep pace with Utah and Wyoming while waiting for their best player to return to action.
The Miners, who along with Wyoming and New Mexico are considered to be the best teams in the WAC, will play Utah without two of their best players. Marlon Maxey, UTEP's top scorer and rebounder, hasn't played this month because of a knee injury and didn't travel with the team to Utah. Prince Stewart, a starting guard last year, has been academically ineligible this season.
With Maxey in the lineup, the Miners were good enough to defeat nationally ranked Georgetown last month. Without him, they were routed by BYU.
"Wyoming and UTEP might actually have better talent than New Mexico," said Utah assistant coach Joe Cravens early this week.
"UTEP is very good," says Majerus, who has won 18 of the 21 games he has coached at Utah. "They opened the conference with two good wins and have that outstanding victory at Georgetown."
Like the Miners, the Utes have been forced to play without one of their starters for most of the past two games. Guard Byron Wilson, nursing a bruised rear end (the result of being undercut against Hawaii), didn't play against San Diego State and played only two minutes against New Mexico. Jimmy Soto and Craig Rydalch alternate at Wilson's position.
The Ute offense continues to be headed by Josh Grant, who has scored in double figures in all 15 games this season, and reserve long-shot specialist Phil Dixon, who has shot better from three-point range (30 of 57) than from in closer (20 of 45).
UTEP's lineup consists of three sophomores - guards Henry Hall and Gym Bice and 6-5 forward Johnny Melvin. The other two starters are 6-8 forward Von Bennett and 6-8 junior David Van Dyke. The team's top scorers are Hall (13 point per game) and Melvin (11.4).
The Miners swept Utah last year, winning by 11 in Salt Lake City and by three in El Paso.