Posted: Wednesday February 16, 2011 4:26 AM

UTEP quietly leading C-USA behind Floyd

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EL PASO, Texas (AP) - When Tim Floyd began his first season as UTEP's head coach, he warned against having high expectations.

He downplayed his team's ability to repeat as Conference USA champions, said there were a number of good teams and lamented that there was much work to be done.

Yet here is UTEP sitting atop the league standings in a tight race with seven games remaining. The Miners (19-5, 7-2 C-USA) lead second-place UAB by percentage points and third-place Memphis (19-6, 7-3) by a half-game.

Floyd still insists there is a lot left to accomplish, but he has quietly put the Miners in position to win the league again and make another visit to the NCAA tournament. All this after losing big men Derrick Caracter and Arnett Moultrie from a team that finished 26-7 and made the tournament for the first time in five years.

"It's the first time in many, many years, going back to 1994, that I've had a senior-laden team,'' Floyd said. "I'd forgotten the value of older guys that have talent. That team ended up going to the NCAA tournament and I feel this team is better.''

The season has allowed Floyd to put more distance between him and his time at USC. Under Floyd, the Trojans made three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and had three straight 20-win seasons. But he quit in 2009 after being accused of giving $1,000 in cash to a middleman who helped steer O.J. Mayo to USC.

Floyd has denied the allegations while the school wound up banning itself from postseason play and throwing out the wins from Mayo's lone season with the Trojans in 2007-08.

He's been able to focus again on UTEP, where he was assistant under coach Don Haskins. He's been able to coach his players to put defense first, and he's had to do it with an inexperienced center.

"We've been able to disguise our deficiencies and as the season has progressed,'' Floyd said. "We turn down good shots for great shots. Their defensive principals have grown and they love their identity as a defensive club. This team is as good as the teams I had at USC.''

With eight seniors, the team has been driven to do one better than last year. Starting guards Julyan Stone, Randy Culpepper and Christian Polk have led the charge.

"We've got terrific guard play and that carries you a long way in college basketball,'' Floyd said. "We have the ingredients that other teams have that have had success in the NCAA tournament: seniors with great guards and guys that have won a lot of games.''

Culpepper, who was named preseason C-USA Player of the Year, has lived up to his billing. He has averaged 19 points per game, third best in the conference, and has been the playmaker.

Polk has become a second-half player, shooting 49.5 percent in the final 20 minutes of games while improving his defense, and the 6-foot-7 Stone has become a do-it-all shutdown defender.

"He's accepted his role as the defensive stopper and he's gone and taken that and played it with a great deal of pride,'' Floyd said of Stone. "He's our best defensive rebounder, our leading rebounder, he leads in assists and he leads in steals. He's stepped up and made big shots when we needed to make a big shot. He's our best post man. He's just been invaluable.''

Four of the final seven regular-season games will be at home and UTEP is also hosting the league tournament, which begins March 9.

"We arguably have the most difficult finishing stretch with the final seven games,'' Floyd said. "We need to win our home games. We need to take care of our home court and see if we can go steal whatever we can steal on the road and for that to happen, it will require us to play at a high level defensively.''
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