Season-long U-turn lands UTEP on top

Originally Published: February 26, 2004
By Ed Graney | Special to ESPN.com

In the basketball coaching world of Billy Gillispie, responsibility means this:

"You coach your guys like they are the conference champions," said Gillispie. "Whether you are good enough or deep enough or whatever. Practice like champions. Play like champions. Usually only one team is going to win that league championship, but you still give your team that unbelievable effort every day. You let them know that this is the way champions do it and this is the way we're going to do it.

"We might not win a championship in the next 10 years, but the tone is set now. Our attitude and effort and mindset is going to be right, no matter what the scoreboard might indicate."

Indications are, Gillispie knows what he's doing.

One of the nation's more impressive turnarounds this season can be found at Texas-El Paso, where a second-year coach inherited a small, undersized and not overly talented roster weeks before last season began and has turned a 6-24 nightmare into a WAC contender. UTEP is 21-5 overall, 12-4 in conference and sitting alone atop the league entering the weekend, one game ahead of Rice.

The same Miners team that won just three conference games last season sits today with an RPI of 43, a schedule rating of 113 and entertaining very real postseason thoughts.

Five days before the team's exhibition opener last season, Gillispie was plucked from Bill Self's staff at Illinois to assume control of the Miners, who had watched coach Jason Rabedeaux resign 10 days earlier for personal reasons.

Tulsa coach John Phillips spent time on the same Golden Hurricane staff with Gillispie when both worked under Self. Phillips insists UTEP's resurrection began with that forgettable record last season, with how the new coach responded each time another X was placed in the loss column.

Gillispie
John Tofi is one of four Miners who average double-figure points for Billy Gillispie.

"Billy came in and told those guys what was acceptable and what wasn't from the very beginning," said Phillips. "I saw Billy's reaction after games last year. Losses were unacceptable to him. He was going to do everything possible to get them believing and be successful."

Everything possible began with getting better players.

Gillispie's reputation as a relentless recruiter paid off with a top 20 class, which included the signing of four junior college players. All-Americans arrived in point guard Filiberto Rivera and forward Omar Thomas, and you can forget about that one-season-to-acclimate-yourself-to-Division I ball theory. The two are combining to average 26.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.7 assists.

But perhaps more critical to UTEP's success than its newfound talent is how those from last season have reacted to lesser roles. Giovanni St. Amant led UTEP in scoring as freshman (13.6) and set school-records for a first-year player, but he now averages 5.8 points off the bench. Roy Smallwood is a senior forward who ranks among the school's all-time Top 10 in points, rebounds, steals and blocks. He is averaging 23.7 minutes and 8.2 points this year.

"I think winning definitely helps with having the right attitude," said Gillispie. "The bottom line is, we have better players this year. It's really that simple."

If UTEP wins the regular-season title outright, it will certainly earn the distinction. The Miners are 16-1 at home but just 5-4 on the road, where they play their final two games before the WAC tournament. Rice must travel for three of its final four games, while Nevada (1½ games back of UTEP) gets two of its final three at home, where it is 13-0.

"(Gillispie) did a great job getting his guys to learn their system last year, even when they were losing," said SMU coach Mike Dement, whose team hosts UTEP on Saturday. "When you can have guys accept lesser roles and not pout about it when better players come in, that says a lot about a team and its coach. But you can't discount those new guys. They have been major impacts for them. Billy has just done a great job."

Indications are, great is right.

The raging Pacific

Big West Conference news this season has centered for the most part on Utah State, which remains in the top 25 polls, won 17 straight at one point, and is the assumed favorite of many to win the conference tournament and secure what will likely again be the league's lone NCAA Tournament bid.

One problem: Pacific might have something to say about that.

A lot about it, really.

Bob Thomason didn't envision his team being this good this fast, but the numbers he expected next season are suddenly very much part of the present.

Entering the week, Pacific is tied with Utah State for first at an identical 14-1 in conference, and it is the Tigers who snapped the Aggies' long win streak with a win on Feb. 14. In fact, Pacific (19-7 overall) has won 14 straight heading into a home game against Cal State Northridge on Saturday.

"We're a pretty good team," said Thomason, in his 16th season. "We have no fear now. When practice started back in October, I knew we could be good if we could defend and become unselfish. I knew we were long and fairly athletic, but I wasn't sure if we could shove and have enough bulk and really be physical with people. But we have been able to do those things and rebound at the defensive end."

Balance defines the Tigers, who offer five players averaging between 7.3 and 14.4 points. Miah Davis is the team's leading scorer, a senior guard who has been arguably the league's best player the last few weeks.

Still, chances for an at-large NCAA bid in the Big West remain slim, even in a season with the Pac-10 could get no more than three invitations (assuming someone other than Stanford and Arizona wins the conference tournament) and leagues such as the Mountain West and WAC each have enough warts to suggest some unusual things might have to transpire for either to get more than two.

"Look, people are going to justify things the way they want," said Thomason. "The perception is our league should only get one team in. Well, not if two are deserving. The perception is the Pac-10 should get three or four. Well, not if there are only two good teams.

"Think about it. We could win our last three games and finish 17-1 in league. Utah State could lose a game, finish with 24 wins overall and be 16-2 in conference and not even win it. But both of us would still deserve to go.

"I doubt we'll get two unless everything plays out right and the right people win their conference tournaments. If everyone who is supposed to win does, that could create more opportunity for our conference."

A much deserved opportunity at that.

Games to Watch
Washington at Arizona, Thursday
The Wildcats hope to gain some momentum heading into the conference tournament with the first of three straight home games to end the regular season. First things first, though, like trying to hold onto second place over the Huskies. Over his last four games, Washington sophomore forward Bobby Jones is shooting 73.5 percent (25-of-34) and averaging 15 points.
Rice at Hawaii, Saturday
Two teams still very much in the WAC title picture meet. The Owls (who are at San Jose State on Thursday) enter the week in second place at 19-7 overall and 10-4 in conference, while Hawaii (which hosts Tulsa on Thursday) is 17-8 and 9-5.
Utah at BYU, Monday
Second place in the Mountain West Conference and possibly more ammunition for an at-large NCAA berth is on the line at the Marriott Center. BYU has won six straight, while the Utes come off a 30-point home victory against New Mexico. BYU has seen its RPI climb to the mid-30s.
Around the West

  • Washington's third-place standing in the Pac-10 is the team's highest this late in a season since the final day of the 1986-87 regular season. Now, the Huskies (13-10 overall, 8-6 conference) face second-place Arizona (17-7, 9-6) on Thursday.

    Washington defeated Arizona 96-83 last month in Seattle.

    "Confidence won't be an issue for us," said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, whose team is trying to position itself for a late-season run at a possible at-large NCAA berth if it doesn't win the conference tournament. "But it's a tall order to go into Arizona and win. You don't just stroll into McKale Center and get a victory. You have to go in there and take it. Arizona is very capable of going on a monster run from here on out."

  • .Being swept at home by the Arizona schools certainly damaged Oregon's at-large chances, but the Ducks do have freshman point guard Aaron Brooks back in the lineup. Oregon plays at the Bay Area schools this week, including against No. 1 Stanford on Saturday, a trip where Brooks' minutes are expected to increase.

    Brooks, who missed 10 games with a fractured right wrist, combined to play 30 minutes and offer nine points and seven assists in losses to Arizona and ASU.

    "He handled himself very well during the whole (injury)," said Oregon coach Ernie Kent. "He would have played more (than 18 minutes) against ASU if not for foul trouble. I've been very pleased with his progress. Now, sometimes when you come back like this and are great, it's because of the time off and you are horrible later on. I hope that's not the case."

    Quote to Note

    "It meant a lot to our program certainly to beat a ranked team. It's nice for our guys to lend credence that we are headed in the right direction and improving and developing and are not that far away. Certainly, it feels good to win any game. But for me to have Coach (Lute) Olson as a mentor, to know how much I learned from him and how much I owe him, it means a lot to win a game like that."
    -- Oregon State coach Jay John on his team's 90-84 victory against Arizona.

    Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ed.graney@uniontrib.com.

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