Three years ago, the UTRGV men’s basketball program lost its head coach. Following an overtime loss at Texas Southern, head coach Lew Hill passed away in the early morning hours. At the time, the Vaqueros were on track to finish in the top-3 in the WAC.
Since that time, the free fall has been quite interesting to watch. The Vaqueros did not win a game against a Division I opponent the rest of the season. Most of the roster left including a mid-season transfer by Sean Rhea.
Athletic director Chasse Conque turned to Austin Peay head coach Matt Figger to take over in Edinburg. And, over the past two seasons, it has been a bit of a struggle. Eight wins in 2021-22, including a 3-15 finish in WAC play. In year two, the Vaqueros won 15 games including a pair of road wins at Tarleton and at GCU.
Now, in year three, Matt Figger refers to it as his first year. His first year with his recruits, with returners, and with experience and size.
Sure, the Vaqueros lost three guards, including the WAC’s leading scorer in Justin Johnson.
However, there is depth and a lot of size in Edinburg in 2023-24. Ahren Freeman, Daylen Williams, C.J. Jackson, Sherman Brashear, Alex Horiuk, and Isaiah Barganier all return. John Shanu II was also coming back before suffering a season-ending achilles injury.
Add in some key newcomers and there is a lot of excitement in Edinburg for the UTRGV Vaqueros.
Matt Figger, third season
23-40 overall, 9-27 WAC
15-17 overall, 6-12 WAC
- Justin Johnson – Eligibility
- Will Johnston – Transfer to LMU
- Adante’ Holiman – Transfer to UTSA
- Derrius Ward – Transfer to Florida Memorial University
- Dima Zdor – Eligibility
- Noels Slivackis – Transfer to Eastern Florida State College
- J.J. Howard – 6’5, Freshman, G
- Elijah Elliott – 6’1, Junior, G – Blinn College
- DeAnthony Tipler Jr. – 6’5, Junior, G – East Tennessee State
- Howie Fleming Jr. – 6’5, Junior, G – Winthrop
- Roy Jones III – 5’10, R-Junior – Tuskegee
- Fadi Mougharbel – 6’3, R-Sophomore, G – Missouri Valley College
- Hasan Abdul-Hakim – 6’8, Junior, F – College of Southern Idaho
- Saliou Seye – 7’0, Sophomore, F – Ellsworth Community College
- David Oyona Ibandzo – 6’10, Freshman, F
- Ahren Freeman – 6’7, Senior, F
- Daylen Williams – 6’8, Senior, F
- C.J. Jackson – 6’7, Senior, G
- Sherman Brashear – 6’5, Junior, G
- Alex Horiuk – 7’0, Sophomore, C
- Isaiah Barganier – 6’7, Sophomore, F
- John Shanu II – 6’11, Junior, F (Out for the season)
People will say the loss of All-WAC guard Justin Johnson along with Will Johnston will hurt the Vaqueros. Perhaps. It’s tough for any program to find pieces who can combine to score almost 35 points per night. But, perhaps that is a good thing heading into year three under Matt Figger.
We saw glimpses of what Ahren Freeman and Daylen Williams could do in 2022-23. Same thing for C.J. Jackson and Sherman Brashear. And all four of these players return in 2023-24. That is the good news. On top of this, UTRGV might be the biggest team in the WAC. Had John Shanu II not suffered a season-ending achilles injury this Fall, UTRGV would be the biggest team in the WAC. Instead, the Vaqueros will have two 7-footers, and five players 6’8 or taller.
The big question is who will be the point guard? Will Johnston and Adante’ Holiman held down that position for the Vaqueros in 2022-23. Both have moved on, one to the WCC, the other to the American.
Can C.J. Jackson be the floor general or is he better playing off the ball? Perhaps East Tennessee State transfer DeAnthony Tipler Jr. will step into that role. Under Matt Figger, the point guard has had arguably the largest role on the floor. So, there are some big shoes to fill.
Keep an eye on College of Southern Idaho transfer Hasan Abdul-Hakim. According to Matt Figger, Abdul-Hakim is one of the best prospects he has ever coached. The 6’8 combo guard averaged 10.7 points and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field for the Golden Eagles in 2022-23.
UTRGV has depth and size and should control the paint most nights. Ultimately, the success of the 2023-24 season will rest in the hands of the backcourt. Keep an eye on who gets the nod out of the gate.
The Vaqueros have yet to release their full schedule. As of now, UTRGV will play in the Acrisure Invitational in Thousand Palms, California over Thanksgiving break. On Dec. 17, UTRGV hosts Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. And UTRGV opens up WAC play by hosting GCU on Nov. 29. The Vaqueros then head up to Stephenville to take on Tarleton on Dec. 2.