It’s something that Solomon Hainna saw from day one.
During the 2018 offseason, the graduate transfer big man rolled into UT Rio Grande Valley for his final season of college eligibility. As a 26-year old with five years in the Air Force under his belt, no sane person could call Hainna soft. But as he got to know his new teammates, the grizzled veteran immediately took in a lesson in toughness from one of the shortest, youngest players on the team: then-sophomore point guard Javon Levi.
“The way he plays, that’s something I gravitated towards upon meeting him,” Hainna said in an interview last season. “As a big man, if a small person on the court isn’t afraid to get in there and battle, take hits and fall, and foul people hard when it needs to happen and do all the little work, why wouldn’t I own up to that same challenge and emulate his toughness?”
A year later, all that battling has propelled Levi to college basketball stardom.
The junior point guard leads the country in assists per game (8.3 APG) and assist rate (51.1%), while acting as the tip of the spear in Lew Hill’s up-tempo, pressure attack. The reigning WAC Defensive Player of the Year also plays with an intensity that sets the tone for a defensive attack that has forced turnovers at the 13th-highest rate in the country.
That intensity started simmering early in a road win at Kansas City on Thursday night. As the teams traded early baskets, Levi and Roos’ senior forward Javan White began verbally sparring midway through the first half as the Vaqueros inbounded the ball under their basket. Levi helped force a turnover on the Roos’ next possession, spurring a frantic period in which UTRGV forced seven turnovers en route to taking a 33-22 lead.
Shortly out of the break, Levi bounced off a hard pick set by the much larger White, absorbed the impact and directed a “yes sir” at the Kansas City bench as the referee called an offensive foul. That jawing — and the juiced play that accompanied it — would continue throughout the game, even as the referee issued a first half warning to both teams. In the end, it summed up a scrappy night for the Vaqueros, as they flummoxed a solid Roos team into 17 turnovers and their lowest scoring output of the WAC season in a 13-point win.
Levi (5 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds) didn’t play the leading role scoring the ball — that went to senior Lesley Varner Jr. — but he had just as much impact, and that’s the way he’s played for as long as he can remember.
A point guard from the beginning
Unsurprisingly, Levi found himself holding the reigns in his first year of AAU basketball.
In and of itself, that made sense for a player who’s always seen himself as a pass-first point guard. But, like he eventually would with Hainna, the then-fourth grader had to win over an older crowd, running the show for a team stacked with sixth graders.
“I’ve been shooting hoops since I could walk almost, but I knew [basketball] was going to be my thing around fourth grade, that’s when I knew I had the ability,” Levi said. “That year I played my first year of AAU with the sixth grade team. That’s when I figured maybe I can do this.”
Hill would put Levi into a similar spot when he arrived at UTRGV in 2017. The fourth-year coach put immediate trust into his then-freshman point guard, as Levi started 23 games and averaged 22.8 minutes per game in his first college season.
To the nation’s assists leader, that experience off the bat was invaluable.
“Coming from high school to college, the best experience is game experience because you have to adjust to the pace of the game, the physicality of the game, the mental aspect of the game,” Levi said. “The best experience I got with that was playing so many minutes for a freshman, that was a big difference: just adjusting to the game and getting ready has gotten me to this point now.”
That early jolt of playing time set the stage for a career that has already assaulted the program’s record books. Levi is fifth in UTRGV history in career assists (466) and third in career steals (181), and has also logged 12 double-digit assist games to this point.
Levi said he admires Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul, and how they get teammates involved and play tough defense, but doesn’t necessarily try to mimic their games. Instead, his court wizardry and toughness is based more off the people he had a front row to growing up, like his older brother or fellow Killeen area native Ojai Black, who played three seasons at Texas State from 2014-17.
To Levi, honing the court vision that has produced one of the NCAA’s premier player makers can only improve with repetition.
“The more you play, the more you recognize in a game. You see different defenses, learn how people react to different moves or how people guard different things,” he said. “You can anticipate a majority of those things and know where your teammates will be in the offense.”
Leading to that next level
Head up, Levi is constantly scanning the court when leading a fast break.
He’s able to do that more often than most players under Hill, who has continually had his teams play at a fast — at times hyper-speed — pace over his four seasons in Edinburg. The chance to be creative in a system like that helped draw Levi to UTRGV, and also produced one of the program’s best seasons a year ago.
At 20-17, the Vaqueros logged their first 20-win season since 2002, and just their fourth 20-win campaign since 1977. The loss of some important pieces, such as big man Terry Winn, has led to a step back this year, as UTRGV sits at 8-14 (4-5). That included a non-conference that produced some highs (a win over Southland stalwart Sam Houston State) and lows (a pair of losses to South Texas rival Texas A&M-Corpus Christi).
The Vaqueros have, however, started the second half of WAC play on solid footing with the win over the Roos. And in the WAC, the potential to rise as the ultimate challenger to league juggernaut New Mexico State (9-0) seems wide open.
With second place Cal Baptist (7-2) not yet eligible for the conference tournament, six of the league teams — including 4-5 UTRGV — are firmly in position to grab coveted seeding that would avoid the Aggies until the conference tournament final.
Should the pesky Vaqueros be the team to ultimately act as the potential, albeit longshot foil for NMSU, it will almost certainly be because of Levi’s leadership, which is something that has evolved over his years at UTRGV.
“When I got here as freshman, I really didn’t talk as much, I was playing hard and all that good stuff, but still leading by example and at this level you have to be more vocal at this position,” he said. “That’s one of the things I’ve really been trying to work on, but being a point guard, you have to lead no matter what because that just comes with the position.”
And beyond cascading drives to the basket and wrap around assists, that was on display against the Roos. Levi helped control the game and grab a big road win, as UTRGV stares down a manageable four-game stretch before a tough road swing to NMSU and CSU Bakersfield.
With the creative, intense lead guard in the fold, the Vaqueros should have every chance to turn the narrative on their season.