EDINBURG — When the COVID-19 pandemic first made national headlines, the UTRGV men’s basketball squad was busy getting ready for their Western Athletic Conference Tournament debut in Las Vegas.
The Vaqueros were playing some of their best basketball of the season after winning eight of their last 10 games and securing a second-place finish in WAC play, the best regular-season finish for the team since joining the league in 2013.
But before UTRGV could take the court for its first conference tournament game at Orleans Arena, the WAC Tournament became one of many major events canceled in the wake of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Vaqueros have not played since.
After a season full of uncertainty, at-home workouts and the creation of a soft bubble environment for student-athletes on campus, though, UTRGV is set to make a climactic and long-awaited return to the hardwood with one of the most unique rosters of any college basketball team in the nation this season.
“All the stuff we thought would happen early (last year) came to light toward the end. We’re excited for the opportunity to play again,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “With the style and the way we play, conditioning is part of our culture. … We’re catching up now. It’s like cramming for a test. We’ll be ready.”
The Vaqueros return a deep roster bolstered by the additions of several talented transfers.
Headlining UTRGV’s returning group of three starters is senior point guard and back-to-back WAC Defensive Player of the Year Javon Levi, who will have the opportunity to break several all-time program records this season as a prolific scorer and elite defender.
Levi, who averaged 11.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game last season, also ranked second in the NCAA in assists per game (7.96) and led the WAC in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.93), assists (199) and steals (60).
“I think he’s the best point guard people don’t talk about,” Hill said. “Javon (has) gotten better every year. He had his best 3-point shooting year last year. I think the game will slow down for him this year. He’ll make dynamic decisions quicker and better. I think he’ll score more for us as well. He’s a wolf. He’s going to turn you. He’s going to pester you. He’s going to bump you, grab you, whatever it takes to make you give that ball up or to help his team get in a positive position to make good plays.”
The Vaqueros will also be aided by several veteran additions made to the program via the NCAA’s transfer portal.
This year the Vaqueros will get full seasons out of forward Marek Nelson and Doc Nelson, who had to sit out last year after transferring from DI schools, after the two transferred from Western Kentucky and Weber State, respectively.
UTRGV also added graduate transfer center Jeff Otchere from Stony Brook, who won the 2018-19 Atlantic East Defensive Player of the Year award. The Vaqueros are the only DI team in the country to feature multiple conference defensive players of the year in Levi and Otchere, which should make the team one of the top defensive mid-major teams nationally.
“We’re going to make it hard for other teams to score,” Hill said. “They’re going to have to shoot tough, contested shots. No layups. They’ll get one shot at it then we’ll rebound the ball and get out and run. We’re going to plug it up as much as we can.”
The Vaqueros begin conference play in January, which will feature four sets of back-to-back games at four different WAC opponents. They will also host four WAC foes for back-to-back conference games once conference play commences.
UTRGV, however, also boasts one of Texas’ top non-conference schedules without playing a game outside of the Lone Star State.
The Vaqueros host the UTSA Roadrunners at UTRGV Fieldhouse and the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders at Bert Ogden Arena, but their non-conference schedule is highlighted by a pair of marquee road games in Austin and College Station.
UTRGV tip-off its season against the 19th-ranked Texas Longhorns at the Erwin Center on Wednesday and travel to face the Texas A&M Aggies at Reed Arena on Dec. 6, the farthest road trip on the team’s non-conference slate.
“We put together a strong schedule that’s in-state, which really lets you know how many teams we have to battle in recruiting,” Hill said. “To be able to play such a competitive schedule without having to put anyone on a plane is really exciting.”