UTRGV men’s basketball excited to boost profile with CBI appearance

EDINBURG — The Gazelle Group’s Ray Cella begins reaching out to schools about participating in the CBI about a month before the brackets are announced on Selection Sunday. Typically, the response from the programs is 50-50. Some are content to let their season end, while others want the opportunity to continue playing.

When he looked at UTRGV, he saw a team that had won more games than in any season since 2012-13 and was on the rise under second-year coach Lew Hill. UTRGV is 15-17 and ranks No. 229 in RPI, but perhaps more importantly, the Vaqueros wanted to the chance to participate.

“From our standpoint, that’s why we like them,” Cella said. “That’s what we saw: a team that was enthusiastic about continuing to play, and that’s one of the things we want.”

UTRGV will face New Orleans on the road at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the opening round of the College Basketball Invitational, a 16-team tournament produced by the Gazelle Group.

For UTRGV, the event is an opportunity to raise the program’s profile, reward the current roster and gain a new selling point for the next generation of recruits. The program hasn’t participated in a men’s basketball postseason tournament since advancing to the NIT following the 1980-81 season.

“It means a lot to this university, to the community,” Hill said. “It’s just showing that we’re improving as a basketball program and as a university. It’s just showing that the culture is changing.”

When Hill took the helm at UTRGV prior to last season, he often talked about bringing the program along in baby steps — having to crawl before you can walk.

The ultimate goal every season is to win the WAC Tournament and advance to the NCAA Tournament, and UTRGV athletics director Chris King said the CBI can be another step on the path to that accomplishment.

“That’s something Coach Hill and myself want for this community so bad, but the CBI is a great tournament,” King said. “For the program itself, for recruiting, for this community, for the seniors — five seniors who have been through a lot — I think it’s a pretty big deal for our department and for this basketball program.”

The CBI is entering its 11th year, and 26 teams that have participated in the event went on to reach the NCAA Tournament the next season. VCU won the 2010 CBI before reaching the NCAA Tournament Final Four in 2011, and Nevada won the 2016 CBI before advancing to the NCAA Tournament as the Mountain West Champion last year and as an at-large selection this year. Cella said the athletics director at 2015 CBI champion Loyola Chicago reached out to him after the program won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament last week to express gratitude that the current seniors went through the CBI experience as freshmen.

“It’s a good stepping stone. And we’re not embarrassed to say we’re a stepping stone,” Cella said. “That’s what we want. We want teams to play in the CBI and then play in the NCAA Tournament the next year. That’s our goal.”

King said UTRGV was in regular communication with the CBI during the selection process, and he believes the program became an appealing option because of its style of play, upward trajectory and strength of schedule, including nonconference matchups against Texas A&M, SMU, Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech. The WAC was also a boon, as the league ranks 14th out of 32 NCAA Division I leagues in conference RPI.

CBI road teams do not pay an entry fee and have their travel expenses covered by the tournament, King and Cella said, and UTRGV is guaranteed to not play a home game unless it advances to the best-of-three final.

In the process of securing the CBI berth, UTRGV agreed to play in a tournament the Gazelle Group is producing at Baylor in 2020.

All in all, King and Hill both said pursuing the opportunity to participate in the CBI was a no-brainer for the program.

“It makes a ton of sense,” King said. “I would find it hard to believe any WAC school would turn down the opportunity to be in the CBI.”

“It was obvious for us,” Hill said. “You have to do this if you’re in our situation, because we’ve never been to a tournament. We want to sell the program to recruits. We have to sell that we can get in these types of tournaments and possibly win it.”