Joe Golding’s third season at the helm of the UTEP men’s basketball program is not an absolute make-or-break.
It is big.
His arrival in 2021 after leading Abilene Christian to NCAA tournament glory sent a charge of excitement into a Miner program that last made the NCAA tournament in 2010, which perhaps overlooked the fact Golding needed eight years to take ACU to the postseason.
The landscape of college basketball has changed, to the point teams can retool almost instantly through the transfer portal and where a Conference USA school like Florida Atlantic can make the Final Four a year after going 19-15.
That doesn’t mean UTEP has to make the Final Four this year, or even the NCAA tournament. This is an important season to take a major step forward after the 14-18 disappointment of 2022-23 when UTEP’s offense became nearly unwatchable.
This year the Miners need to show they’ve put themselves in the mix for bigger things, that if matters line up correctly they have the foundation in place to make a March run.
“I like where we are in year three,” Golding said a week before Monday’s opener against McMurry. “I’m excited to coach this team, I’ve loved coaching this team since the summer. I’ve had a lot of fun, good things are happening. But yes, I’m happy where we are in year 3.
“This team will compete, I like that about this team. We have to have some success early coming off of last year, that’s important to get our fan base back involved and getting belief back in our program. We’re going to have opportunities early.”
Before the scoreboard gets turned on, progress has been intangible. Golding’s first season did go well, turning in a 20-14 mark in a transition year where many of the players he inherited chose to stay.
Then they left, and a year-delayed rebuilding process began in earnest. Golding’s vision, one that took him some time to implement at Abilene Christian but was spectacular when it finally fell into place, is an unselfish team that locks down on defense and can have a number of players reach double figures.
Abilene Christian’s assets weren’t always obvious to see other than the final score, and that could be what success here at UTEP is going to look like.
“This is the first team I’ve had here that reminds me of our ACU teams: the culture, the relationship piece, the depth, these guys playing for each other and with each other,” Golding said. “It’s getting closer to what we had at ACU. It’s not there yet, but it’s getting closer each and every day.”
When coach talks about culture, it’s often because there isn’t a 20-point-per-game scorer with a roster of four-star recruits, and that’s the case at UTEP. That’s been the case at all of Golding’s stops. He knows that talk about culture can add up very tangibly in the final score.
“Playing for Miners, playing for the city of El Paso, playing for our student body and not for ourselves,” Golding said of what could make this team a good one. “Last year we got caught up with some personal stuff, agendas, the ball stuck too much which is why we were bad assist-to-turnover ratio and a bad offensive team.
“We play late in March if this team continues to play together on both sides of the ball.”
That will involve better 3-point shooting, better free-throw shooting, fewer turnovers and more assists. On the other end, “The way we guard defensively, you have to have five guys working together, it’s not just, ‘I have my guy.’ It takes five,” Golding said.
All of that hasn’t been in the Haskins Center every night, every minute, for a number of years. If Golding has that in place for his third season, this could be remembered as the season the Miners started to turn their fortunes toward a better place.
This year isn’t a be-all, end-all, but it’s a major one.
Bret Bloomquist can be reached at 915-546-6359; firstname.lastname@example.org; @Bretbloomquist on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Time for UTEP to show progress in Joe Golding’s 3rd season | Bloomquist