GAME NOTES: A pair of former Western Athletic Conference rivals will square off in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational, as the Fresno State Bulldogs meet up with the Texas-El Paso Miners at the Don Haskins Center.
When these teams last met in 2005, they were competing as fellow members of the WAC. They split both meetings in that final season as league foes, but Fresno State leads the all-time series, 15-12. The winner this time will advance to the second round to face either Tulane or Princeton.
Fresno State really played well in the last month of the season, but it was too little too late. The Bulldogs won nine of their final 12 games, but are just 17-16 overall entering this battle, their first ever in the CBI.
UTEP has been more uneven as it enters this event. The Miners have gone 3-3 in their last six games, including a 64-56 loss to Southern Miss in the Conference USA Tournament. The Miners had a better year overall, however, sporting a 23-10 record. They are 4-3 all-time in the CBI, with a run to the tournament finals in 2009, where they fell to Oregon State.
When they last hit the floor, the Bulldogs wound up on the wrong end of a 93-77 decision to eventual champion New Mexico in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament. Fresno State only connected on 37.9 percent from the floor, while being outscored 31-19 at the free-throw line.
Fresno State has not been an explosive offensive team this season, netting 73.3 ppg on 43.5 percent shooting, although the team ranks third in the MWC in scoring. The Bulldogs have managed a slight scoring advantage (+1.9), allowing 71.4 ppg. Tyler Johnson (16 ppg, 7.4 rpg) is the top scoring and rebounding threat on the roster, which features four players averaging in double figures. Marvelle Harris (14.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg) can also fill it up as can Cezar Guerrero (12.6 ppg, 3.7 apg), although he is only connecting on 39.1 percent of his field goal attempts. Paul Watson (10 ppg) rounds out the group of scorers.
UTEP also made it to the quarterfinals of its league tournament, before being turned away by Southern Miss. The Miners only connected on 38.8 percent of their field goal tries, while being outrebounded by a hefty 45-28 margin. Julian WAshburn finished with 16 points to lead the way.
Although it didn't get to the NCAA Tournament, winning 23 games is still impressive, and UTEP did so thanks to its play at the defensive end of the court. The Miners are allowing only 63.4 ppg on the seventh-best opponent field goal percentage (.382) in the country. Tightening up at that end has made up for a rather lackluster showing on offense, as the Miners net only 69.4 ppg, despite leading C-USA in field goal percentage (.468). Washburn (13 ppg), Vince Hunter (12.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and John Bohannon (11.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg) are the go-to options.
With such tremendous attention to detail on defense, the Miners should have no trouble slowing down a Fresno State team that is nothing special offensively.
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