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UT Rio Grande Valley showing big-time progress in Lew Hill’s second season

You’ve seen more of the Vaqueros than you think.

NCAA Basketball: Texas-Pan American at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you know it not, you’ve seen a lot of UT Rio Grande Valley this season.

Dante, the star of Nike’s “Want It All” commercial, goes from childhood hoop dreamer, to Duke star to shaking Ty Lue’s hand and throwing down passes from Lebron. The actor that plays Dante didn’t show up to shoot the commercial without credentials. Dante is played by Everett Osborne, a guard who was a regular in UTRGV’s rotation from 2014-16.

Like the commercial, Osborne’s former team has been making noise this season.

The Vaqueros forced 24 turnovers and rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat UC Irvine on Saturday night, evening their record at 6-6. Nick Dixon — a preseason all-WAC first teamer — was tremendous in the victory, going on a personal 9-0 run at one point, and scoring a game-high 23 points.

He’s lived up the hype this year, leading the WAC in scoring (21.6 PPG) and adapting well to life without Antonio Green, the high-volume shooting guard that opened up space for him last season but transferred to Middle Tennessee. Unlike last year — when Dixon was similarly brilliant — the Vaqueros have had more to get excited about than their star guard and a fast-paced offense.

On-court results have begun to sprout in Lew Hill’s second second season.

UTRGV has already won three non-conference road games, after not having won such a game since beating UTSA in San Antonio in 2014. The Vaqueros are also riding a three-game winning streak, the first time they’ve done that in non-conference play since joining a Div. I conference back in 2009.

And their six wins have had plenty of in-state oomph. They’ve taken advantage of rebuilding situations at Rice and North Texas to grab wins in both teams’ gyms. And they’ve also won two dramatic games against South Texas rival Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

Admittedly, none of those three teams are ranked in KenPom’s top 253 at the moment. Nonetheless, Hill can use them as building blocks as he recruits the state, something that he’s already shown he can have success doing. The Vaqueros have gotten quality minutes from two Texan freshmen in San Antonio-native Greg Bowie (20.0 MPG, 5.7 PPG) and Killeen-native Javon Levi (20.9 MPG, 3.7 APG).

Levi in particular has shown potential as a distributor alongside Dixon. He’s made eight starts at point guard, and while he has had turnover issues at times, is coming off a career-high seven assists (against just one turnover) in the win over UC Irvine.

Perhaps most importantly, sophomore wing Xavier McDaniel Jr. (11.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG) has made progress as the team’s second option, often playing the four in a small lineup. And the UTRGV frontcourt has been solidly anchored by seniors Mike Hoffman and Dan Kimasa, who helped keep UTRGV competitive for long stretches against immensely-talented Texas A&M in an eventual 18-point loss on Nov. 30.

The Vaqueros still face steep challenges in a WAC that, to this point, has looked every bit as deep as many thought it would be before the season. They also play arguably their toughest remaining game of the season on Dec. 16 against Sun Belt-favorite UT Arlington.

That game, however, is in Edinburg. If the Vaqueros can pull the upset, someone may want to make a commercial about it.