UTEP will turn up pressure in the Pit vs. Lobos - Albuquerque Journal

UTEP will turn up pressure in the Pit vs. Lobos

Joe Golding managed to grind his way to the UTEP coaching job this past offseason after establishing a very distinctive culture for a decade at his alma mater, Abilene Christian, .

His teams are going to defend. They’re going to pressure you. They’re going to make you uncomfortable. And they will make you turn the ball over.

In fact, his ACU teams ranked in the top 30 nationally in each of the past five seasons in creating turnovers, including ranking No. 1 in defensive turnover rate last season, No. 2 in 2020 and No. 9 in 2019.

It’s a blueprint Lobos coach Richard Pitino says clearly made the 456-mile trek west with Golding last spring when he landed the job in El Paso.

“I was impressed with their toughness, their physicality,” Pitino said of his quick takeaway from watching UTEP on film from earlier this season.

So, as the Miners (4-4) enter the Pit on Sunday, they’ll be looking to steal a win – literally – with a team that has found success in turning teams over this season.

UTEP’s defense over the previous 10 seasons had an average national ranking of 184th in turnover rate. In his first month on the job, Golding has the Miners ranked 46th this season, forcing teams into turnovers on 22.6% of their possessions (the national average is just 19.1%).

But Sunday’s match between old Western Athletic Conference rivals presents quite the strength vs. strength matchup. Despite the Lobos (6-4) playing at the fourth-fastest pace in the country, they’ve actually been very protective of the basketball with a turnover rate of just 14.7%, which ranks 25th in the country.

Lobo guard K.J. Jenkins, coming off a career-high 21-point, five 3-pointer game in Thursday’s win over Denver, says the tone for the low turnovers is set with the top two ball handlers, Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr.

“They’re heavy on the ball and they’re doing a really great job of controlling it on the offensive end by not turning it over,” Jenkins said. “Turnovers is a huge part of our success, also. I think we all just bought into that, seeing what they’re doing. It just makes us know that we have to bring the same energy and do the same thing – take care of that ball.”

That UNM has turned the ball over so infrequently based on its pace of play is fairly remarkable.

As of late Saturday, per KenPom.com, of the top 100 fastest playing teams in the country, only four have better turnover rates than do the Lobos, who rank fourth in tempo and 23rd in turnover rate.

Those teams are:

• Iowa (57th in tempo/1st in turnover rate)

• No. 3 Duke (77th tempo/2nd turnover rate)

• No. 18 Auburn (49th tempo/12th turnover rate)

• University of Maryland-Baltimore County (48th tempo/18th turnover rate)

Of course Pitino doesn’t want his team to back off on the turnover numbers, but he knows they need to move the ball much more offensively than they have done.

“We’ve talked a lot about that,” Pitino said. “We are not getting enough assists, especially with guys who can make shots. We’re not getting enough assisted jump shots. It’s too much isolation basketball. We’re not turning it over, which is great, but we’ve got to work on – that offensive flow has got to be better.”

OVERLY PROTECTIVE: UTEP protects the ball, too. In fact, the Miners’ +4.2 turnover margin ranks 39th while the Lobos +3.4 turnover margin ranks 64th of 358 teams nationally.

MAKE GOOD: Sunday’s game was supposed to be played in the 2020-21 season before COVID wiped out any chance of that happening as New Mexico health restrictions prevented any basketball being played in the state.

It is unclear if the two programs will continue making this an annual game as it was when the two teams were in the same league, which they haven’t been since UNM left the WAC when the Mountain West launched in the 1999-2000 season.

ONE MORE NUGGET: Hall of Famer and former Denver Nugget Alex English will be signing autographs on the north concourse during halftime.

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