Miners help prove C-USA's worth
BY JOHN KLEIN Senior Sports Columnist
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
12/22/09 at 4:34 AM
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OKLAHOMA CITY — UTEP made a statement on national television for Conference USA on Monday night.
And it sounded an alarm for Oklahoma.
Randy Culpepper had 27 points and the Miners shot 60 percent to boost C-USA's suddenly growing reputation with an easy 89-74 victory over Oklahoma in the All-College Classic at the Ford Center.
It appears C-USA may be loaded with a handful of teams capable of reaching the NCAA Tournament. The C-USA Tournament, scheduled for March in Tulsa, is looming as a wild scramble for NCAA berths.
"Memphis did not come back to the pack in our league this year," said UTEP coach Tony Barbee. "It was our responsibility in the league to bring our play up to that level. It has taken a while to build our programs, but we've got five or six teams that are at that level now.
"I think this is the year we're going to get three, possibly four, teams in the (NCAA) tournament. The way some of our teams are playing, maybe five."
That is probably a wild exaggeration, but no question Conference USA teams are flexing some muscle.
In the second half of the doubleheader, Oklahoma State's James Anderson had 28 points as the Cowboys pounded La Salle, 77-62.
But it was the first game that provided the stunner. Well, it wasn't a surprise to OU coach Jeff Capel.
"I said before the game that this was the best basketball team we've played this year so far," said Capel. "It certainly turned out that way. They are a very good basketball team.
"UTEP just beat us. It isn't like we gave them the game. They are better than us."
The Miners certainly look good enough to be a major factor in the Conference USA chase.
"Oklahoma is a good team every year," said Christian Polk, who had 17 points. "So that's a good win for us over a good team."
Tulsa, Memphis, UTEP, UAB and Houston have significant early victories. Others, such as Southern Miss and Marshall, even appear to be threats.
Conference USA, a playtoy for Memphis in recent years, now has some bite.
"Everyone talked about Memphis and how they had no competition in our league," said Barbee. "They were winning all their games in conference. Well, let me assure you, they would have won all of their games in most conferences in this country.
"It has taken some time for some of the programs in our league to come back. We're one of those teams. I think there are a lot of teams in this league that are now good enough to challenge."
UTEP completely overwhelmed the Sooners, much in the same manner that Tulsa took apart Oklahoma State earlier this month.
"I think everyone knows how good Tulsa is," said Barbee. "Everyone knows how good Memphis is. There are other teams in this league that are playing very well, too.
"This game was key for our team. It was a chance for people to see just how good our team is on national television. Our league is winning some of these kind of games on national television, and we're getting some attention."
Oklahoma simply could not defend UTEP. It was a thorough beating from the start. The Miners led by 17 at halftime.
OU never got closer than 10 in the second half.
"They were very athletic," said OU's Willie Warren, who had 26 points.
Scoring wasn't the problem for Oklahoma. Once again, it was defense.
"We did not defend," said Warren. "We are not going to be able to win games if we don't defend better than that."
While UTEP looks ahead to a vastly improved Conference USA, the Sooners have even bigger problems lying down the road in the Big 12. The nation's top two teams, No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Texas, headline what might be the nation's best conference.
So, no matter how good UTEP might be, and the Miners might turn out to be pretty darn good, there are bigger challenges ahead for the Sooners.
"No doubt, we have a lot of work to do," said Capel.
The Miners may be starting to spurt just as the league season draws near. They had a close call on Dec. 16 when they blew a 12-point lead in the final five minutes of an overtime loss to 15th-ranked Ole Miss on a neutral court.
"That's what you do when you are building a program," said Barbee. "I think we learned from that game, and it helped us in this game."