EDINBURG — The UTRGV Vaqueros men’s basketball team has had two starkly different kinds of results this season: home wins and road losses.
The team has yet to win a game away from the friendly confines of UTRGV fieldhouse, going 0-9 to this point in road and neutral site games, but has won six of seven at home this year and remains undefeated in those contests when fully healthy.
That’s been the key phrase, however, for the Vaqueros: when fully healthy.
UTRGV suffered a significant setback early on in the 2019-20 campaign when junior guard Javon Levi went down with a nagging calf injury that prevented him from playing or practicing for a prolonged period of time.
“You’ve got to kind of take it slow. You can’t get everything back in one game or one practice. The recovery process is tough, especially with me being a point guard with a calf injury,” Levi said. “I couldn’t move how I wanted, but I’m getting back in shape and I’m starting to feel good. Coach (Hill) has been giving me time making sure I get treatment and stuff.”
The team has had to account for other injuries along the way, but none have been as impactful as Levi’s.
The Vaqueros’ starting point guard and reigning Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year has been the straw that stirs the drink for the team’s fast-paced offense and pressure defense. When he’s out of action, UTRGV has gone 0-4 compared to a .500 mark with him in the lineup.
“He’s the one that makes it go. He’s got to get that ball and push it every time. Then he guards the best player a lot. We switch a lot, but he always wants the best player. He’s competitive like that,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “He’s talking, making sure that everybody is in the right spot. He’s an extension of me. I let him call some plays if he sees something I don’t see. He’s like a quarterback out there.”
Levi by nature plays with an ultra aggressive style, which made his recovery process longer and more difficult to move past.
“That’s one thing me and Coach (Hill) would go back and forth about. With my minutes when I first came back in, I wasn’t playing too much,” he said. “But I already told him, ‘You know how I am. Once I get out there, I’m out there and there’s no turning back.’ But it’s all good. I’m healthy now so it’s fine.”
The junior point guard has slowly worked his way back into the fold and back up to 100% physically, and he’s looked better than ever since his return.
Levi has helped lead his team to four consecutive home wins, including a 25-point comeback victory over then-first-place Kansas City and a demolition of Chicago State. He’s also notched the team lead in steals (30) and assists (100) on a Vaqueros squad that leads the WAC in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.1) and turnover margin (+5.69).
“He’s getting in the flow. To his credit when we’ve been on the road, he’s just been hurt all year,” Hill said. “Now he’s starting to practice again and get that rhythm, so once he gets that rhythm he can flow and show why he’s one of the best guards in the conference and one of the best defensive guards in the country.”
Levi’s return has also done wonders for the team’s chemistry and ball movement on the offensive end. For the first time all season, UTRGV has tallied back-to-back games with 75 points or more in its last two wins.
A big reason for that has been Levi’s ability to alleviate pressure from the team’s two other veteran leader, senior forward Lesley Varner and graduate student guard Jordan Jackson, as well as its young newcomers.
“They’ve evolved a lot. They’re starting to understand picking their spots, starting to understand that they don’t have to do it by themselves and they have to trust their teammates,” Hill said of his veteran leaders. “Now when all three of them are playing we’re pretty good, but the problem early was that Javon had missed so many games that it put pressure on Lesley and Jordan. So now that Javon comes back, that eases the burden for those two because if you take Javon out, you’re playing with all new guys. That makes a difference.”
Levi, who honed his leadership skills in the offseason, hopes to lead the Vaqueros over the hump to tally their first road win of the season against Seattle U at 9 p.m. Tuesday with a renewed focus on defense and rebounding.
As a leader from a point guard’s perspective, I think I’ve grown a lot. I remember freshman year Coach (Hill) used to beg me to talk. ‘I don’t hear you. I hear you in the locker room all the time, but not out here,’” he said. “I’ve been trying to preach in practice the last few days that when we go on the road, you win on the road with defensive and rebounding. I think we can do both of those at a high level and if we commit to those two things, our offense is going to take care of itself every time.”