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November 4, 2008Memorial Gym seemed a bit quiet. The only noise being made was the screeching of the air conditioners until Julyan Stone stepped onto the court. The sophomore shooting/point guard was the first out, shooting free throws and perimeter shots.
It was his way of preparing for another tough practice, and improving his shot, which was one of his goals over the offseason.
"Coach needs me to step up offensively this year," Stone said. "They're grooming me as a scorer, shooter and attacker."
Stone said he knows his defense is solid, but has made a concerted effort to bulk up in order to play more aggressive.
"I was here from May to first session just lifting, just to get me in shape so physically I can take bumps," Stone said.
Stone wasn't kidding. Once practice began, it was obvious he was slashing more towards the hoop, and earning high-percentage shots.
"I'm attacking the basket harder (since) my athleticism has gone up a lot," Stone said. "Coach has been telling me to get into the weight room to get stronger so I can take hits."
That mentality has been the driving force in practice as well. As scrimmages or drills are executed, players are noticeably quicker, more agile and it's a credit to the recruiting job of head coach Tony Barbee.
"We're coming along," Barbee said. "Guys are getting in better condition and we're progressing further along in the system."
During coach Barbee's three-year tenure, the Miners have slowly progressed in the win column, beginning with 14 wins in his initial campaign and improving to 19 last season, which included a .500 mark (8-8) in Conference USA.
Throughout those two years, one player has been the face of the program - Stefon Jackson. The senior scored a team-high 23.6 points per game during his junior season, and still found ways to give his teammates opportunities to fill up their stat sheets.
"I worked on a lot of ball handling, shooting the three-ball better and worrying about creating for others," Jackson said. "At the next level I know I'll have to play at a one or a two - I'll be a combo guard. So I need to work on making my teammates better, which will make me a better player."
On top of that, the 6-foot 5, 185 pound guard also averaged a team-high 5.7 rebounds, which he hopes he won't have to do again.
"We've got some big bodies out there so hopefully I won't lead us in rebounds, but that's a goal for me, to go get rebounds," Jackson said. "Hopefully I'll be third or fourth on the team."
But Jackson will need to be No. 1 in the leadership department as he guides the team through the rollercoaster of emotions that will occur during the season.
"I'm a senior leader, so I've got big shoes to fill," Jackson said. I've got to lead my team in the right direction and hopefully it's to the tournament."
That's always the goal for any team, but for now coach Barbee said he would be pleased to see his team show intensity at the defensive end and on the practice floor.
Young and fast
There is an extra step during UTEP basketball practices, and it can be attributed to the second-year players and five new freshmen. Granted the learning curve is steep for the high school, turned Division I athletes, but Stone said the added tempo has improved the team as a whole.
"We're a lot younger, but we're quicker," Stone said. "Last year we were an up-and-down team but this year we added so much more, so that everyone can improve their games."
That added dimension Stone speaks of is a front court. The Miners finally have players who are taller than 6-foot 8 inches, but that doesn't mean the team is ditching their up-tempo game.
"We still have that style, but now we have a big inside presence that is able to post up and give more opportunities to our guards," Stone said.
One of the big players is Kareem Cooper, a 7-foot, 290 pound center who not only adds a shot-blocking presence on the defensive end, but he also provides a viable post-up option when the Miners need to switch to a half-court game. Cooper has also been an asset for the younger post players such as Claude Britten and
Wayne Portalatin, who have said they are learning better technique playing against a player the caliber of Cooper.
"We've been working with the addition of Big Coop," Portalatin said. "He's been helping Claude and I develop he's been working with us everyday and getting us ready."
Portalatin said the post players lacked confidence in their game, but that the added practices against Cooper have helped them gain it back as they begin their sophomore campaigns.
The team must shake off any rust or rid themselves of doubt because once the lights turn on inside the Don Haskins Center, the blood, sweat and tears the players leave on the wooden floor of Memorial Gym comes full circle - it's game time and there are no mulligans.
Carlos M. Silva Jr. is the publisher for MinerDigs.net. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.