The UTRGV Vaqueros men’s basketball team has been in a delicate spot over the past 18 months or so. On Feb. 6, 2021, Javon Levi and the Vaqueros had battled back but ultimately felt short in a 77-75 loss at Texas Southern. And what makes it even more interesting, is 2020-21 was the COVID year. So, technically Texas Southern wasn’t even on the schedule when it was announced prior to the season.
Like most schools across America, UTRGV and Texas Southern came together to fill a void in the schedule…in the middle of the season. In fact, UTRGV was only able to play that game because GCU was unable to travel to Edinburg for their scheduled WAC series due to COVID issues.
The Vaqueros were 8-3 up to that point. UTRGV featured Javon Levi, Sean Rhea, Quinton Johnson II, Marek Nelson, Uche Dibiamaka, and LaQuan Butler among others. This was a veteran squad and one that had the chance to compete for a WAC title.
But, the unthinkable happened a few hours following that loss to Texas Southern.
Head coach Lew Hill passed away early in the morning of Feb. 7, 2021. Less than 24 hours after the loss, UTRGV was without a head coach.
“Very sad,” ESPN analyst and longtime friend Fran Fraschilla said. “Very, very sad day for a lot of us. I was stunned.”
As was the rest of the basketball world. That moment, that loss of a man who gave kids chances, saw the good in everyone, and led a life of peace and love flipped the UTRGV men’s basketball program.
The following four WAC games were cancelled. And following a 116-51 win over non-DI opponent Dallas Christian, the Vaqueros did not win another game in 2020-21. UTRGV went 0-6 in its final six games with an average margin of defeat of 12.6 points.
Not only that, forward Sean Rhea left the program after the win over Dallas Christian. As did multiple players when the season was over, including All-WAC guard Javon Levi.
It was not an ideal situation for anyone.
Can you imagine being Matt Figger and stepping into those shoes? Trying to rebuild a program from the ground up? Yes, coaches do it a lot. But Lew Hill meant so much to the Rio Grande Valley area and UTRGV. Those are some tough shoes to fill.
And 2021-22 was a difficult one for the Vaqueros.
UTRGV finished 8-23 overall, 3-15 in WAC play. The Vaqueros three conference wins came against Chicago State and in a sweep over Lamar. So you can understand the struggle. Not only that, UTRGV had depth issues at times.
Just look at the wild game against Abilene Christian on Jan. 26. The Vaqueros led by 12 with 1:59 left to play. And did so with three players already having fouled out. And with 1:26 to play Justin Johnson fouled out.
Jeff Otchere had to play a few minutes even though he was hurt. And at the time, Matt Figger and his staff actually had one of the managers go in a put on a uniform just in case. Pretty wild.
It was a lack of consistency for Figger and the Vaqueros in 2021-22.
Justin Johnson, Marek Nelson, RayQuan Taylor, Doc Nelson, Mike Adewunmi, and Xavier Johnson all played in at least 29 games. LaQuan Butler, Quinton Johnson II and Donte Houston Jr. played quite a bit when they were healthy.
Only two players were in double figures. Justin Johnson averaged 17.7 points and Marek Nelson averaged 10.4 points.
There was very little size as both Jeff Otchere and Donte Houston Jr. dealt with injuries all season.
And one has to wonder if the hangover from losing a beloved head coach is creating a long road back to success?
During Lew Hill’s tenure, UTRGV increased its win total by five in every season outside of the 2020-21 COVID year. There are resources, support, and opportunities. Most media outlets and platforms don’t give a lot of hype to the UTRGV men’s basketball program. They are in South Texas and kind of get forgotten at times. And with the recent struggles, especially since Lew Hill’s passing, it is to be somewhat expected.
Matt Figger has an entirely new roster in 2022-23. All-WAC guard Justin Johnson is the lone returner for the Vaqueros. Seven players on the roster have Division I experience. 6-11 center Dima Zdor comes over from GCU. Zdor, along with 6-11 John Shanu II, give UTRGV size it hasn’t had in quite some time. And if the appeal for 7-footer Alex Horiuk is approved, UTRGV might be the biggest team in the WAC.
There is potential. And Matt Figger has a very young roster that features one senior and one graduate student. Perhaps some success in 2022-23 will give a young Vaquero squad some confidence. Things don’t start off in the easy category in 2022-23. UTRGV heads to Big 12 country to take on Kansas State on Nov. 7 in the season opener.