Throughout the offseason, we’ll try to catch up with each WAC head coach to get their thoughts on the previous year and what to expect in 2017-18. UT Rio Grande Valley’s Lew Hill, who will be entering his second year in charge in Edinburg, was kind enough to spend some time with us earlier this summer.
Lew Hill essentially got a blank canvas at UT Rio Grande Valley.
During his first year in charge, he returned just two players that spent significant time in the rotation the year before. It was truly the start of a ground up rebuild for a program that had seen five head coaches, two conferences and a name change since 2003.
As expected, the win-loss results weren’t great. The Vaqueros went 10-22 (2-12) with their only WAC wins coming against Chicago State. They had the league’s least efficient defense and routinely saw opponents score in the 80’s, 90’s and even 100’s.
But beyond the record, there were positives. Rising junior Nick Dixon left the team for “personal reasons” after just two games in 2015-16, but returned to with a bang. He ended up on the All-WAC second team, and teamed with a number of underclassmen — Lew Stallworth, Xavier McDaniel Jr. and Lesley Varner — to form an offense that gave the WAC fits at times.
Here’s Hill on his returning players, development and how the Vaqueros can keep improving:
Mid-Major Madness: You’ve been an assistant at some very successful programs, what surprised you most in your first year as a head coach?
[From 1998-2016, Hill had extended stints as an assistant at Texas A&M, UNLV and Oklahoma.]
Lew Hill: Really what got me was the administrative work, just doing that type of stuff, like scheduling and so on. The physical part and gameplanning, that didn’t really bother me, but those are things I can and will get better at. How you adjust is what matters. I really want to improve on everything, especially being a little clearer. Express myself clearer to the guys, and be more demanding on them — not give them too much, because with today’s kids there has to be a little give and take.
MMM: Did you talk to Coach Kruger throughout the year?
[Hill served on Lon Kruger’s staff at both UNLV and Oklahoma, which included eight trips to the NCAA Tournament.]
LH: Of course - every few weeks, if I really needed something, I’d call him. I tried to not lean too much on him because he’s busy. But if I get in a corner, I know he’s there when needed.
MMM: What were you most proud of with last year’s team?
LH: I’m proud of all our guys, that they never quit. I thought the kids stayed focused and never quit during the whole process of developing a new system. They didn’t make excuses. I was telling someone yesterday, we had a whole lot of new people. Really two people that had played Division I basketball. It was like teaching 13 freshmen. I tried to not get down on them and keep them motivated and keep it very positive with them.
MMM: I know you’ve said you thought the defense struggled last year, especially in the half court. How does that improve?
LH: Mainly because the guys will have gone through it for a whole year. The starting point will be different. We’ll also be really, really demanding on defense. There’s also the combination with rebounding. Last year we got good stops but couldn’t finish it with a rebound. Rebounding and defense go hand in hand, and we need to get better at both. Our full court defense was pretty good, we got steals and turnovers. But the half court defense needs to get better.
MMM: What would you like to see Nick work on for next season?
[Dixon led UTRGV in both scoring (18.8 PPG) and rebounding (5.1 RPG), and got to the free throw line at will, posting the second best free throw rate in the league during WAC play. This landed him on the All-WAC second team and All-WAC newcomer team.]
LH: I see him become more active, improve his three-point percentage, lift teammates up. He played great last year but now he has to learn how to do the same thing, but have confidence in teammates and become a more vocal leader.
MMM: How do Xavier and Lesley harness all that athleticism, what’s the next step for them?
[Xavier McDaniel Jr. and Lesley Varner are both long, athletic players that flashed potential as freshmen. McDaniel, the son of Wichita State great Xavier McDaniel, had 27 points in the season opener against UT Martin. Varner had a 14-point, 11-rebound, 7-assist game against Chicago State in January.]
LH: The next step is for them to improve their skill and become greater parts of the team. Become real tough and play without fouling, all the little things. If they start with little things it’ll create success and more confidence.
MMM: You have a ton of guys that like to shoot the three, do you see next year’s team as one that will emphasize that?
[Nearly 40 percent of the Vaqueros’ field goals (39.7) came from distance. Much of this, however, was due to junior Antonio Green’s WAC-leading 298 attempts. Green announced that he was leaving the program after this interview.]
LH: We’re going to shoot the three, but we need to do a better job throughout practice with it, and take time to practice it. We have to take better three’s. Not just shooting three’s, but taking good three’s.
MMM: How excited are you for the new arena?
[The Vaqueros will have a new home in Bert Ogden Arena, an 8,500 seat venue expected to open in 2018.]
LH: I’m excited about it, drive by it every day on the way to work. I’ll really become ecstatic once it’s built. It’ll be great for the fan base, recruiting and playing with pride. It’s taking shape.
MMM: You had a successful career at Wichita State and in the Missouri Valley, sad to see them leave the league?
[Hill was an All-MVC player at Wichita State during the late 80’s.]
LH: I thought they should have left the league a few years ago, the Valley is totally different than when I was there. With how good they’ve been I thought they should’ve left. I’m excited for the new adventure they’re going on.