The underdog looks to have value in one of the games in the Old Spice Classic on Thanksgiving night when the UTEP Miners (1-1, 0-0 neutral) take on the Oklahoma Sooners (2-0, 0-0 neutral) at HP Field House in Kissimmee, FL at 7:00 ET in a game televised nationally on ESPN2.
UTEP is coming off of a disappointing 15-17 season in its second under Coach Tim Floyd, although there were some shining moments such as an upset of Conference USA kingpins Memphis. Floyd stresses defense, and that aspect of the team was fine last season as it ranked in the top 100 in defensive efficiency.
The Miners can improve a great deal this season with better offense and that begins with the versatile Julian Washburn, who has a nice touch from the outside for someone that is 6-foot-7, 205 pounds. Washburn averaged 11.2 points and 3.5 rebounds as a freshman last season, and UTEP need him to develop into an elite scorer as a sophomore this year.
The news is mixed so far as Washburn has scored exactly 11 points in each of the Miners’ first two games, first in a nice 69-49 blowout home win over Oral Roberts in the season opener and then in an excusable 72-51 road loss to an Arizona team currently ranked 26th on the Pomeroy Ratings.
The good news about UTEP is that the defense is already playing well, and even in the loss at Arizona, the Miners forced 19 turnovers. It is early but UTEP ranks fourth in the country in defensive turnover percentage, forcing turnovers on a whopping 31.2 percent of opponent’s possessions, and the Miners rank 61st in defensive efficiency at 94.6 points per 100 possessions.
Oklahoma is off to a 2-0 start, but do not read too much into that as the wins came over UL Monroe and Texas Arlington, and the Sooners did not cover the spread in that latest win over UTA on Friday, escaping with the 63-59 win.
Oklahoma finished at 15-16 last season, a season that ended with a loss to the Texas A&M Aggies in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament, and most of that team is back this year for Coach Lon Kruger. Yes that makes the Sooners an experienced bunch, but the talent level is mediocre and this is a school in need of one or two prize recruits.
The biggest concern for the Sooners here is that they rank 123rd on the early going in offensive turnover percentage at 19.5 percent, and that is despite facing a couple of weak schools that do not apply much pressure. Look for that turnover rate to be even higher vs. the UTEP defense today.
Those turnovers could easily key an outright upset, but we will play it safe and take the points with UTEP on Thursday.
NCAA Basketball Pick: UTEP +3½ (-105)