The UTRGV men’s basketball team is closer to its Nov. 6 opener than its Aug. 27 start to the academic year.
The first week of practice is one of the visible signs of the impending season. Often, the first several days of practice can feel as though things are moving in slow motion.
This is not the case for UTRGV. The NCAA gives schools the option to take their teams on a foreign tour once every four years. UTRGV coach Lew Hill took advantage of the option by taking his team to Costa Rica for two exhibition games before the school year began.
“That trip (to Costa Rica) showed me that we’re an athletic, physical team,” Hill said. “We’ve never been that since I’ve been here. We have multiple people who can shoot the ball. And where (former guard) Nick (Dixon) scored for us last year, we’ve got multiple people who can score. We’ll be a more balanced team this year.”
Dixon, one of Hill’s team captains last year, doubled as UTRGV’s ironman in 2017-18. He played nearly 1,000 minutes (977) and led his team and the Western Athletic Conference in scoring (20.3 points per game).
UTRGV had a few more key defections since last season ended. Another team captain, guard Lew Stallworth, transferred to The Citadel in April. Fellow guard Xavier McDaniel Jr., UTRGV’s third-leading scorer last season, left the team as well.
While losing Dixon, Stallworth and McDaniel Jr. are big blows, the Vaqueros return four starters from last year’s squad that played in the College Basketball Invitational. UTRGV’s participation in the CBI was the program’s first taste of postseason play since 1981.
“We think (junior forward) Terry Winn III can be the catalyst for us,” Hill said. “He came to us mid-season, and never really recovered from a knee injury. But he’s fully healthy now. He’s our inside-outside guy. (Redshirt junior guard) Jordan (Jackson) redshirted for us because of injury and then we’ve got two other starters coming back. We’re excited about this team. We think we can be one of those teams that can surprise a lot of people.”
Jackson, a Texas Tech transfer, joined the program last season and appeared in UTRGV’s first four games of the season. He sat out the next four games before making his final appearance of the year at Texas A&M last Nov. 30.
Jackson said their Latin American trip helped build chemistry with the new players.
“Having the amount of practices that we had before going to Costa Rica and playing real games was huge,” Jackson said. “It was amazing to see how well everybody played together, seeing how we had only known each other for such a short time. My process of thinking right now is: we’re in October with 30 full practices before we can play. We had 10 practices before the trip, and we played well together. Imagine us having 30 more practices together. I feel like we can do some amazing things this year.”