There were some who thought Billy Gillispie might not be coaching the Miners this year. They turned out to be correct -- but for all of the wrong reasons.
UTEP was pegged by the WAC media and coaches to finish ninth last year after Gillispie's first campaign produced a 6-24 record in 2002-03. But Gillispie worked some of his recruiting magic and led the Miners to a share of the WAC regular season title and an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament before bolting for the job at Texas A&M.
Now, former assistant Doc Sadler gets his chance, and he inherits a program that is still stocked with talent. The Miners lose just two starters and return an abundance of talent.
First-team All-WAC point guard Filiberto Rivera leads the show after a season in which the former junior college transfer averaged 11.2 points and 4.8 assists per game. He'll team with swingman Omar Thomas, the team's leading scorer a year ago despite starting just eight games, to provide a formidable backcourt. But they'll need a dependable off-guard; the coaching staff hopes Giovanni St. Amant emerges to fill that role.
Up front, UTEP brings back forward Jason Williams and center John Tofi, who combined to produce 22.4 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. The 245-pound Tofi has enough bulk to bang with anyone in the league.
The loss of the two starters -- Roy Smallwood and Chris Craig -- does hurt, however. Smallwood was a versatile player who scored 1,380 points and grabbed 755 rebounds during his career in El Paso. Craig was the Miners' primary outside threat, hitting 84 3-pointers last season.
The selection of Sadler over fellow assistant Sergio Rouco did hurt the Miners. Rouco took the job at Florida International and took recruit Ivan Almonte with him. Alex Galindo, another Rouco recruit, was released from his scholarship and signed with Kansas. Sadler has four newcomers arriving -- guards Miguel Ayala, Vernon Carr and Kelvin Davis join the team along with forward Stanley Branch. All are freshmen except for Ayala, who comes in from the junior college ranks.
The Miners have as much talent as anyone in the league but were able to sneak up on people last year. That won't be the case this season. Rivera, Thomas and Williams were unknowns last year as junior college products, but they will be marked men this year.