The Houston Cougars gained some much-needed confidence by defeating visiting UTEP in January.
They might gain a small swagger if they complete a regular-season sweep of the Miners on Wednesday.
UH (11-9, 4-3 Conference USA) will attempt to improve its postseason prospects by defeating UTEP (15-5, 6-1), one of four teams that sit above the Cougars in the C-USA standings, at the Don Haskins Center.
The Cougars' 81-66 victory over Marshall on Saturday catapulted them into the race for a top-four seed and the accompanying first-round bye in the C-USA Tournament in Tulsa, Okla. That bye could be a key factor in whether UH can outlast the competition and score its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1992.
But Aubrey Coleman will be a key factor when the Cougars and Miners tip-off at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
UH is 2-0 against UTEP with Coleman, who leads the nation in scoring (26.2 points per game) and steals (3.2 steals per game), in the lineup. After amusing the crowd at Hofheinz Pavilion en route to scoring a season-high 37 points against Marshall, the senior guard is seeing the fruits of his labor.
“I’ve been working out by myself at night,” Coleman said. “I train my mind like I want to, and play like I want to play. I just focus, relax and just hit my jump shots.”
Whether it’s mental or physical, Coleman has the Miners’ number since becoming arriving at UH. He scored 24 points in his first trip to El Paso before dropping in a game-high 22 in Houston on Jan. 13.
But Coleman may not have to carry the Cougars to victory. Washington has stood up and offered a hand.
After undergoing surgery to repair stress fractures in both shins this summer, no one knew how much the freshman forward could contribute to his team this season. Months later, Washington is ready to help head coach Tom Penders consistently utilize a two-forward lineup.
“After a few losses with using only four guards, I just told him that I wanted to play,” said Washington, who played only 19 minutes in the first game against UTEP. “He was worried about my legs because he didn’t want me to struggle out there, but I showed him I was okay. I told him my leg was fine and I was ready to go and he gave me a shot.”
In his last two games, Washington has emerged as a role player. He recorded a career-high 11 points on five-of-five shooting against Memphis. He followed that with a solid defensive performance against Marshall forwards Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Wilkerson. He also chipped in 10 points, five rebounds and three assists in his first start of this season.
For Penders, Washington’s growth translates into more possibilities on offense.
“He’s a big body on offense and defense, and we run a lot of plays through him in which he’s passing the ball or setting screens, and we’re going to expand a lot of that stuff,” Penders said. “There’s so many things that he does like passing that we might want to move him to the high post and run some stuff off of him.”
The Miners have won five straight since losing to UH, 75-65, at Hofheinz Pavilion. That includes road victories over Memphis and at UAB — arguably the two toughest places to win at in C-USA.
But earning a victory at Don Haskins Center is no cakewalk. In fact, the Cougars have won in that building only once in school history: last season.
In the Jan. 13 meeting, UH held UTEP’s top two scorers, Randy Culpeper (17.1 points per game) and Derrick Character (13.7 ppg), to a combined 19 points on 7-of-18 shooting. The Miners never recovered after missing 71.9 percent of their shots in the first half.
Coleman expects UTEP to be more accurate Wednesday. He also expects to see Washington on the court for more than 19 minutes.
“He stood up to coach Penders and told him he wanted to play,” Coleman said. “He was really stepping up, and that takes a lot off me.
“Coach said we would go with four guards until someone would step up. Ken did that for us.”