As many college hoops fans spend the next few weeks watching the NCAA Tournament, both UTEP men’s and women’s basketball teams have experienced their own March Madness.
In a matter of days, the Miners lost a pair of assistant coaches under very different circumstances, while a leading scorer also announced that she would not return to the team.
Head coach Rodney Terry won just eight games his first season, but the excitement has been building for quite some time for the future of the men’s basketball program.
Lamont Smith resigns
The team was caught by surprise on March 20 when assistant coach Lamont Smith resigned from his position.
“Earlier this afternoon, we were notified by the University of San Diego administration that Lamont Smith has been implicated in the nationwide college admissions bribery scandal,” UTEP Director of Athletics Jim Senter said in a statement. The university accepted Smith’s resignation effective immediately, and the athletic department had no further comment.
Smith spent three seasons as head coach at USD, and he was considered a good bet to get another chance to lead a college program. All of that is in doubt after the developments.
Brian Burton fired
Meanwhile, Terry let go of another assistant coach, Brian Burton, the week before the Smith story came out. In 2017, Terry hired Burton as his director of basketball operations while at Fresno State. He was promoted to assistant coach at UTEP last spring. The firing caught the Plano native by surprise, and he broke the news on social media the next day.
Within hours, UTEP recruit Brendan Wenzel had requested and been granted his release from his signed letter of intent.
The UTEP men’s basketball team was suddenly without two of their three assistant coaches and a highly touted guard from the Class of 2019.
However, fellow signee and Houston point guard Jesse Zarzuela announced on Twitter on March 24 that he decided to stay with UTEP despite the news that Burton would not be retained.
“Hate that I won’t be playing for Coach Burton and Smith, but still super excited to start my career as a Miner,” Zarzuela tweeted. The rest of the team is still intact and poised to make a run next season.
Women at tourney
Despite winning only nine games this season, the UTEP women’s basketball team won their opening round game of the C-USA Tournament for the second consecutive season.
Head coach Kevin Baker was delivered some bad news on March 21 when Colin Deaver of KTSM Channel 9 reported that Zuzanna Puc would leave the program and transfer for her senior year.
The team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Puc was credited for helping the Miners win four of their last seven regular season games when she convinced the coaching staff to move her to a guard spot on offense.
Her production increased and UTEP finished strong heading into the C-USA Tournament in Frisco. Unfortunately, Puc did not play well in either tournament game, and the Miners were eliminated by Middle Tennessee in the quarterfinals.
Puc will sit out next season and will have one year of eligibility remaining.
Baker will have to figure out how to replace the 12 points and 6.7 rebounds per game that she delivered for the Miners. UTEP will have four seniors on their 2019-20 roster – Neidy Ocuane, Jade Rochelle, Ariona Gill and Katarina Zec. Both Gill and Zec should average in double figures next season, but Ocuane and Rochelle are role players.
Even if Alexa Hoy and Ariana Taylor improve offensively, the Miners will need at least three impact scorers in order to compete in the top half of C-USA next season. The team has three spots open, and the coaching staff is working to solidify the roster during the late recruiting period, which begins in April.
Since 1997, Steve Kaplowitz has hosted “Sportstalk” from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays on 600 ESPN El Paso. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.