EDINBURG — With 12 games remaining on the regular-season schedule, the UTRGV men’s basketball team has already matched its best win total since 2013. At 10-9 on the year, UTRGV holds a winning record past the season’s midpoint for the first time since the 2012-13 campaign, when the team finished 16-16.
“I know the 10 wins is something that everyone is happy about, because we haven’t done it in a while,” Terry Winn, a redshirt junior in his first season with the program after transferring from UTEP, said. “But you shouldn’t look at it like that. We just have to keep getting Ws and getting better.”
Winn has given UTRGV a lift since gaining his eligibility prior to the team’s game against Oklahoma State on Dec. 22, providing another boost to what was already a promising season.
During the second year under coach Lew Hill, UTRGV has been using its up-tempo style, deep bench and pressing defense to post efficiency numbers not seen from the program in many years. After a 2-1 road trip to open WAC play, UTRGV is set for a significant home test when it hosts Utah Valley (14-5, 3-0 WAC) at 7 p.m. Thursday in the UTRGV Fieldhouse.
“I’m excited for how we are (playing),” UTRGV guard Nick Dixon said. “We’re gaining confidence and belief that we can win. That’s the key.”
Entering Thursday’s game, UTRGV ranks No. 215 out of 351 Division I teams in the season-long efficiency ratings produced by popular advanced statistics website KenPom.com. That ranking is UTRGV’s best at any point in a season since at least 2008, when the program finished the year ranked No. 244.
The last time the program finished a season ranked better than the current No. 215 rating was 2001-02, when Texas Pan American ranked No. 167.
“Our guys the last few weeks have been playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of toughness,” Hill said. “We became together. We’re tougher. We’re playing really, really good, solid defense.”
The Vaqueros have largely matched the blueprint Hill outlined when he came to the program prior to last season, employing a fast, attacking style.
UTRGV ranks ninth nationally in tempo and has forced turnovers on 21.0 percent of opponents’ possessions, ranking 66th.
To sustain that pace, UTRGV has played with a rotation as large as 12 players and ranks fourth nationally in bench minutes at 44.8 percent. The stat is defined as the percentage of minutes filled by players who do not rank in the team’s top five in minutes played.
Hill has regularly called UTRGV the best-conditioned team in college basketball. While many coaches look to utilize a tighter rotation as the season goes on, Hill said he has no intention of straying from his formula.
“Nobody plays like we play, so we’re going to play like we play,” Hill said. “We believe in the way we play, and we think we can win this way. So we won’t tighten down.”
As a product of the deep rotation and frenetic pace of play, UTRGV has thrived in the fourth quarter. During its past five games against Division I teams, UTRGV is outscoring its opponents by an average margin of 28-19 during the final 10 minutes. During the first 30 minutes of those same five games, UTRGV is being outscored by an average 59-50.8.
“Every team comes in fresh, but over the course of the game, shots get shorter,” Dixon said. “Teams get a bit more fatigued. That’s how we practice every day, so the last 10 minutes, it really shows more. … Other teams, they’re not as deep as us, and they can’t match our energy and stamina. Especially toward the end of the game.”
Winn said UTRGV can visibly see opponents showing signs of fatigue as games wear on. He also sees himself getting back to full strength, saying that the game is “slowing down” with more time on the court.
Winn sat out the majority of the 2017 calendar year due to NCAA transfer regulations and missed a chunk of that practice time recovering from a knee injury. He played limited minutes in his first two games with UTRGV but has averaged 10.0 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in four starts. Hill said Winn has been progressing “beautifully,” and Winn believes his biggest contribution may not show in the box score.
“Just the energy and the physicality,” Winn said. “I feel like I helped bring that. It’s contagious. Once you see somebody else going hard as all get-out, and doing whatever coach says, it’s just real contagious.”
OUT OF ACTION
The only regular rotation player still unavailable to UTRGV is Jordan Jackson, who has not played since Nov. 30 due to a groin injury. Jackson participated in full-speed five-on-five drills during Wednesday’s practice, but Hill said Jackson would not be available for Thursday’s game. Hill said he was unsure when Jackson would return to the lineup.
“I’m just worried about the people that’s playing,” Hill said.
THE NEW GUEYE
Ndene Gueye, a junior transfer from St. Bonaventure, took part in UTRGV’s Wednesday practice. Gueye appeared in just five games during his first year at St. Bonaventure this season, scoring three points with five rebounds in 17 minutes. As a midseason transfer, Gueye will be eligible to play for UTRGV at the conclusion of the fall 2018 semester.
Hill said UTRGV attempted to recruit Gueye out of Kilgore College, where he averaged 14.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game last season.
“He’s tough,” Hill said. “He’s going to bring some shot blocking. He can score down low, and he will help us rebound.”