The Texas-Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros are looking at the 2021-2022 season as a new dawn. As hard of a season as 2020-21 was for programs around the country, the Vaqueros had their own type of hardship to overcome. On February 7th, 2021, 5th year head coach of UTRGV Lew Hill passed away. He was just 55 years old and just 24 hours removed from leading his squad on the basketball floor. In the wake of such a tough loss, assistant coach Jai Steadman took his new role as Interim Head Coach. Steadman led the team to a 9-10 (2-5, 8th in the WAC) finish, going 1-6 as the head coach.
I’ve said it plenty in these previews the past coming weeks, but the Western Athletic Conference has leveled up. This too is good for UTRGV, and a quality hire like Matt Figger is a sign of the athletics department’s commitment to the quality of this program and conference going forward. Nonetheless, Figger and his staff have a tough task ahead of them if they are hoping for a conference championship in year one. He’s done it before at Austin Peay, so folks around the conference know what to expect out of UTRGV this year.
Matt Figger, 1st Season
Overall: 76-51 (At Austin Peay)
2020-2021 Record: 14-13, 10-10 (5th in the OVC)
Postseason: Lost in the 1st round of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament 67-70 to Eastern Kentucky
Sean Rhea, 6’8, R-Jr., F
Uche Dibiamaka, 6’4, Jr., G
Javon Levi, 5’11, Sr., G
Chris Freeman, 6’6, Sr., F
Mike Adewunmi (SIU-Edwardsville) 6’5, Gr., G
BJ Simmons (Clarendon College) 6’3, Jr., G
Sevon “Sei” Witt 6’8, Sr., G/F
Justin Johnson (Southern Mississippi) 6’6, Sr., G
Donte Houston 6’9, Fr., F/C.
Quinton Johnson II, 6’4, R-Jr., G
Ricky “Doc” Nelson, 6’1, R-Sr., G
Marek Nelson, 6’7, Gr., F
Jeff Otchere, 6’11, Gr., C
Laquan Butler, 6’0, Sr. G
Malik Lawrence Anderson, 6’6, Sr. F
Predicted WAC Finish:
Breakdown: An ambitious hire, can it pay off sooner than later?
The new additions of the Texas Four followed by an up and coming Southern Utah squad next summer definitely shake up the landscape for returning WAC schools. UTRGV has always enjoyed success in their new conference since moving from the GWAC. Under Lew Hill in his four complete seasons, the Vaqueros only missed out on a top-5 finish once.
As the conference hopes to climb the mid-major ranks going forward, the hiring of a previously successful mid-major coach in Matt Figger appears to be a slam dunk. Figger spent the last four years at Austin Peay in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Governors had a record above .500 every single year, and Figger developed the 2020-2021 OVC POY in Terry Taylor and won Coach of the Year in 2017-2018.
Figger has coached at every single level imaginable in one fashion or another. From the junior college ranks to being an associate head coach at South Carolina under Frank Martin before taking the job at Austin Peay. This is a quality hire to follow up after a quality coach and even better man in Lew Hill. The biggest question is, with the amount of talent and strong programs headed to the WAC this year, can Figger turn things around in Edinburg? I think so, but how quick that turn around happens is the variable to be determined. He managed to re-recruit seven Vaqueros from last year, and he’s brought in a large and quality recruiting class to get the job done. He’s done it before you know, taking a Governors team that went 11-19 (7-9) to 19-15 (12-6) the following year.
Big time players to replace, but that tends to happen in year ones
Of the big names lost from last season, Javon Levi’s departure has to hurt the worst. The two-time WAC Defensive Player of the Year fought through a foot injury last season that gave him a slow start out of the gate. His presence as a defensive anchor up top (2.9 SPG-team high) and top notch floor general (5.4 APG-team high) will be hard to replace. Along with fellow starters Sean Rhea (Cal Poly), Uche Dibiamaka (St. Edward’s, Div. II) and Chris Freeman (Jackson State), Levi opted to find his minutes elsewhere next season at nearby UT-Arlington after receiving interest from high major schools across the state.
Some key pieces return who should thrive in this new system
Likely leading my starting five below in a couple of categories next season is returning junior guard Quinton Johnson II. The athletic combo guard, after the departure of starting post Sean Rhea early in the year, became the teams leading rebounder (6.3 RPG) to go along with 9.9 PPG & 2.3 APG. Alongside Johnson II in the backcourt and with huge shoes to fill is the team’s returning leading assist man Ricky “Doc” Nelson. The role of floor general was a concern for me when taking a first glance at this squad. I went back and forth between Doc and returning senior guard Laquan Butler for most of my lunch break. Butler brought a scoring punch of 9.1 PPG in just 18.6 MPG off of the bench. Nelson who saw most of his playing time also off of the bench averaging just 3.4 PPG while also averaging 2.6 APG (2nd best) to go along with just 0.7 turnovers a game. I think Butler’s scoring punch will be just fine as the team’s sixth option, but Nelson’s ball handling ability might be more in demand.
Rounding out the starting lineup as well as key returning players is the frontcourt. In the middle is shot-blocking machine Jeff Otchere. The 6’11 big man only saw the court eleven times last season due to injury. Otchere averaged just 15.9 MPG but filled the stat sheet with 5.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG & 2.8 BPG (best in the conference). With time to heal and a new coaching staff with a style that he says suits bigs like him, Otchere will be opposing big men’s nightmare in the paint, if he stays healthy. By his side will be 6’7 forward Marek Nelson, who averaged 7.7 & 3.6 RPG. My predicted starting five consists of four returning players, but a couple of newcomers could end up seeing starting minutes by the end, with one predicted as a full-time starter.
A cherry on top, in the form of a large recruiting class
There are a grand total of eight newcomers to the Vaquero program, including four freshmen who could see minutes on the floor this season. A freshmen class that includes Ismail Habib (6’0, 175) out of Chicago, IL and frontcourt members RayQuan Taylor (6’9, 195), Shavaul Butters (6’8, 210) and Donte Houston Jr. (6’9, 215). All come with tremendous prep school careers, plenty of mid-major offers and all seemed to have been recruited by Austin Peay and Figger. So the bond and loyalty appear to be quite strong.
Some players I see having a bigger immediate impact are the transfers brought in by Figger and his staff. The most anticipated and presumed starter in my eyes is graduate transfer Mike Adewunmi. A former 3-star recruit and Houston Cougar brought in by way of SIU-Edwardsville. The 6’5, 205-pound guard averaged 13.0 PPG & 6.3 RPG while shooting 47.8% from the floor and 35.4% from deep. I see Adewunmi splitting time between the 2 and 3 spots for the Vaqueros this season. But his scoring ability is the reason I don’t mind choosing Doc Nelson as my point guard over Laquan Butler.
Also expected to challenge for starting roles are Division-II transfer Sevon “Sei” Witt, a 6’8, 230-pound combo forward who averaged 15.9 PPG & 8.0 RPG at Lincoln Univ. (MO) last season. Witt’s scoring ability, mobility and rebounding prowess (3.4 ORPG) make him dangerous for his size. But in the backcourt, Southern Mississippi transfer Justin Johnson (5.7 PPG & 1.2 APG) and former Idaho Vandal BJ Simmons (10.7 PPG & 1.9 APG in 19-20) provide great bench depth. I could honestly see either of these players starting at a certain point this season. Simmons had a tremendous year in JUCO at Clarendon College averaging 17.5 PPG on 39.6% shooting 1.7 RPG, 4.1 APG and 2.4 SPG.
The Vaqueros Ceiling
It’s a bit odd to have a predicted WAC Preseason order of finish larger than ten schools again this year. And for the unfortunate schools towards the end of a very tall latter to the top this season, that may be just the fuel needed to better build a competitive program. I have no doubt Matt Figger is going to do a tremendous job at UTRGV. He has managed to bring in impact transfers, quality recruits and retain several key players. Though given the strength of the conference this season, anything higher than 8th would be a complete surprise in my book for the Vaqueros. But, that is not a place Figger is used to finishing which makes me hopeful for the future in Edinburg. Thanks for reading!
Projected Starting Lineup:
G-Ricky Nelson, 6’1 170 R-Sr.
G-Quinton Johnson 6’4 195 R-Jr.
G-Mike Adewunmi, 6’5 205 Gr.
F-Marek Nelson, 6’7 200 Gr.
C-Jefferey Otchere, 6’11 240 Gr.
The Vaqueros will host the inaugural UTRGV South Padre Island Battle on the Beach this season. Set to take place on Nov. 20 at the South Padre Island Convention Centre. The men’s team is set to take on Northern Arizona, with Texas Tech and Incarnate Word also in the field.
?#SPI Nov. 20
— UTRGV Athletics (@GoUTRGV) July 29, 2021
Also announced by Texas Southern is a home game in Edinburg on December 14th. The Tigers got the better of UTRGV last season, winning 77-75 in Lew Hill’s last ever game on the sidelines. It will be a big night for the program for sure, hoping for a win at home.
IT'S HAPPENING!!! Another TOUGH non-conference schedule. Lots of top tier, quality teams for this coming season. Your Tigers are looking forward to the challenge. ??#BeLegendary #GoTigers @TXSOTigers @TexasSouthern pic.twitter.com/T7SWruD75q
— Texas Southern Basketball (@TSUMensHoops) August 18, 2021