EDINBURG — Heading into their home opener, the UTRGV Vaqueros know that in order to duplicate last season’s success, they’ll need to revive something old and continue to integrate something new.
Men’s basketball head coach Lew Hill and his players recognized after their season opening loss at South Dakota State that the team needs to bring back its tough, physical style of play that made it such a difficult out for any opponent and find new ways to score efficiently in it new-look offensive system.
According to Hill, that’ll be a necessity for the Vaqueros to pull out their first win of the season in their home opener against Howard Payne.
“We’ve just got to do everything we did last year plus. That means just get better defensively and get better offensively. Obviously we didn’t do that last game,” Hill said. “I thought our offense wasn’t there, but we’ve got a new offense. When you get a new offense in — and we didn’t scrimmage or have an exhibition — it’s kind of trial and error on the move. That’s what we did, but we’ll get better.”
The Vaqueros struggled offensively in their season opener against the Jackrabbits, shooting a mere 23.1% from behind 3-point line. The team was, however, very successful in the early going scoring second-chance buckets and points in the paint.
Senior forward Lesley Varner was a big reason for that early success offensively, tallying eight points, two blocks and a team-high 10 rebounds to help set up his teammates.
“I think my game is not one dimensional,” Varner said. “I can do different things on any given night. I can go rebound when my shots aren’t falling. I can create for others when needed to for the team. Whatever it takes for the team to win.”
But UTRGV ran into difficulty during the second half against South Dakota State shooting 7-of-36 from the field. Hill believes that it was an early season hiccup after only practicing the team’s new offensive scheme in preseason practice.
“We’ve been playing against each other and we played a team that plays a different defense than we do, so we had to adjust. It’s trial and error,” he said. “We love it and it’s going to come around. You don’t just throw it in the ocean when it doesn’t work on the first day.”
But the more necessary fix for the Vaqueros will need to come on the defensive end. UTRGV allowed South Dakota State to score 44 of 70 points in the paint and shoot 50% from the floor in the second half, which helped break the game open.
One of a few bright spots for the Vaqueros’ defense was their ability to force turnovers and convert them into points in transition.
“That’s definitely the identity of our team and we try to base our identity on the defensive end, which is getting after it defensively and getting out in transition to make easy buckets on the offensive end,” Varner said.
The other area in which UTRGV excelled defensively was guarding along the perimeter, limiting the Jackrabbits to 4-of-17 shooting on 3-pointers. Junior guard Javon Levi, the reigning WAC Defensive Player of the Year, cites his team’s size and athleticism to switch defensively without creating mismatches.
Levi believes the team’s approach defensively disarms its opponents and creates a competitive advantage for UTRGV when he and his teammates bring the same level of toughness that defined them last season.
“Our strength is our athleticism and our ability to switch. Multiple guys can guard multiple positions and I think that’s our strength defensively,” he said. “They don’t know what we’re going to do defensively. We kind of throw different things at them defensively and I think we use that to our advantage.”
For Hill, the key to the Vaqueros notching that first season win over Howard Payne will be settling into the flow of their new offense and revitalizing their defensive toughness and intensity.
“Execution and mental toughness,” he said. “We have to execute better and we have to just make tougher plays. If we do that, which we will, we’ll be fine.”
The Vaqueros and Yellow Jackets will tip off at 7 tonight at UTRGV Fieldhouse in Edinburg.