Kimasa hitting his stride for UTRGV men’s basketball after difficult transition

EDINBURG — A little more than two weeks ago, UTRGV men’s basketball coach Lew Hill issued a challenge to his team’s five seniors.

“Each one of them has to be better than they were last year,” Hill said. “Each one of them has to show some leadership. We don’t have to put it on just one person. Let’s do it as a group. But I’ve never been on good teams that don’t have great senior leadership. So I challenged them to lead this team.”

Hill said Dan Kimasa stepped up to answer the call. Before the rallying cry, Kimasa was averaging just 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game through his first eight games, lagging behind the 3.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game he posted last season.

But in four games since Hill’s challenge, Kimasa has racked up 11.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, notching his three best scoring games and two best rebounding games since Hill took over as coach prior to last season.

Kimasa will be looking to keep that run of success going as UTRGV enters its toughest nonconference home game of the season, against 7-3 reigning Sun Belt Conference regular season champion UT Arlington at 7 tonight in the UTRGV Fieldhouse.

“Sometimes, you just have to say, ‘Forget it’ and just play, and I think he just stopped thinking and started playing,” Hill said. “He’s been producing, so we’re giving him the ball.”

Now a senior, Kimasa was no stranger to productive games when he first entered the program. He averaged 7.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game as a freshman, then posted 10.0 points and 6.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

But that was under a different system, playing for coach Dan Hipsher. When Hill took over, he brought with him an up-tempo style, focused on transition offense and full-court pressure defense. Hill had been an assistant at Oklahoma prior to taking the UTRGV job, so Kimasa knew what to expect after watching the Sooners play on TV. He said he still found the shift to be a major adjustment compared to the slow, methodical style UTRGV often employed under Hipsher.

“It’s a growth. In the first year, it’s adjustment,” Kimasa said. “He wants people to attack. I have to stay in attack mode. Off the court, you can be nice. But on the court, you have to attack. Attack as much as you can.”

Adonis Rwabigi, a UTRGV senior who has known Kimasa since they grew up together in Rwanda, said the transition to the new system was difficult for Kimasa.

Hill said playing hard is not in Kimasa’s quiet, mild-mannered nature. But Rwabigwi said the issue was Kimasa learning how to harness his energy.

“Dan is aggressive, but sometimes when you don’t know a style of playing, you don’t know how to be aggressive, when to be aggressive, and what kind of aggressiveness coach likes,” Rwabigwi said. “Last year, he was still trying to work through it to try to figure out where he’s going to be, or how he can transform his game in a way that’s going to help this team. This year, he’s picking it up.”

Hill said attacking is starting to come more naturally to Kimasa. He couldn’t pinpoint when or why Kimasa turned the corner, and Kimasa said the change was gradual after more than a year in the demanding practice environment.

“It didn’t start very well, but as always, we have to get the chemistry going and get the team going and be more confident than before,” Kimasa said. “Now, it kind of begins to sink in as we have more practices and more repetition.”

Kimasa said his conditioning needed to improve to fit the new system, and Hill said the senior is in better shape compared to last season. On offense, Kimasa has been utilizing his midrange jumper, catching the ball in the mid- or high post and facing up. Defensively, Hill has stopped asking Kimasa to try to trap against screens, instead positioning him closer to the basket.

Hill wants to see more rebounding and shot blocking from Kimasa going forward, but the senior has already grown leaps and bounds. Hill said Kimasa has played with a newfound confidence in recent games.

“He had to make an adjustment, like, ‘If I want to play and produce, I better get in shape. I better start knowing I have to play hard. I have to rebound,’” Hill said. “He’s a good scorer. We’ve been trying to get him to score, but now, something just clicked. And it happens like that. When you just keep prodding and pushing and pushing, then it clicks. And when it clicks, that’s when it takes off.”