UTEP coach Tony Barbee doesn't expect a hitch in getting Caracter into the Miners' rotation. He backloaded their nonconference schedule knowing the team would be without Caracter early in the season.The Miners, a trendy pick to push Tulsa and Memphis and win Conference USA, are 5-0 with a glut of nonconference games remaining against Ole Miss in Southaven, Miss. (Dec. 16), Oklahoma in Oklahoma City (Dec. 21), at Texas Tech (Jan. 3) and against BYU (Jan. 9). Their C-USA schedule begins SMU on Jan. 6. "I tried to play the fewest amount of games I could prior to Dec. 13," Barbee said. "If I could have played two games, I would have, but there weren't enough dates after it. I had to play some home games." According to Barbee, Caracter has been a model citizen since his arrival in El Paso after transferring from Louisville because of differences with Cardinals coach Rick Pitino about weight and work. Barbee said Caracter, who was hyped as the "next great thing" since he was 14 years old and attending school in New Jersey, has been a loyal foot soldier on the scout team. But don't for a second think that Caracter is the only reason UTEP should be watched throughout the season. The Miners, who lost to Oregon State in a decisive third game of the College Basketball Invitational in April, have one of the better-balanced scoring rosters. UTEP has five players averaging double figures -- guards Randy Culpepper, Julyan Stone and Christian Polk and forwards Arnett Moultrie and Jeremy Williams. "I told Derrick that he wasn't coming here to be the savior or that this would be a one-man show," Barbee said. "This is a team that we've built here. This is our fourth year, and we're where we want to be. We talked about being balanced, and we are. Derrick will make us better, but he doesn't become our team." The Miners relied heavily on Stefon Jackson early in Barbee's tenure. But although Culpepper and Stone don't have similar star power, they're much more of a complementary pair. Moultrie is a developing talent who will thrive even more with Caracter next to him. The Miners should have the best shot-blocking tandem in the league with this pair, even more so than true center Jerome Jordan of Tulsa, who wouldn't have as meaty a mate next to him as Moultrie will with Caracter. Barbee talked about how high this team can go once he has everyone eligible. Still, the Miners may not have as much room for error in Conference USA, which should be extremely competitive. Building a résumé with wins now will only help, and unlike a lot of other potential NCAA teams, the Miners have purposely gotten off to a quiet start. Once Caracter is eligible, the higher-profile games will start rolling in, and we'll have a more accurate picture of the possibility of UTEP being a true team to watch for the next three months. • Florida's loss meant there were 15 remaining unbeaten teams this season. It's still so early and it doesn't mean that much -- yet.
But still, which is the most surprising unblemished team?Texas Tech. The Red Raiders' overtime win over Washington is still one of the more surprising results this season. New Mexico probably would finish second in this group. The Lobos play Texas A&M on Saturday in Houston. Which of the one-loss teams has been one of the most overlooked? Saint Mary's. If the Gaels had beaten Vanderbilt instead of losing by a deuce, they might've been one of the more-talked-about teams. Omar Samhan has been stellar so far, and so has the guard play. The Gaels got overshadowed by Gonzaga and Portland in November, but check who is atop the West Coast Conference standings in overall record in mid-December. Of schools outside the power six leagues, which one-loss teams should you keep tabs on? Northern Colorado at 8-1 is now a favorite to win the Big Sky, and a battle is brewing in the Missouri Valley among undefeated Missouri State (8-0), Illinois State (7-0), Wichita State (8-1) and preseason favorite Northern Iowa (6-1).