University of Texas Rio Grande Valley guard Quinton Johnson II (2) attempts a basket against Texas A&M International during a nonconference game at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

EDINBURG — The UTRGV Vaqueros returned three starters from the 2019-20 squad that finished second overall in the Western Athletic Conference, the program’s top regular-season finish in WAC play since joining the conference for the 2013-14 season.

However, sophomore forward Quinton Johnson II has taken the biggest leap forward of that trio, which also includes senior point guard Javon Levi and redshirt junior power forward Sean Rhea, and has thrived through the early portion of the season in UTRGV’s starting lineup.

Johnson has been the only member of the Vaqueros’ starting five to have appeared in all seven games so far this season for his team and has quickly established his reputation as one of the WAC’s most consistent offensive playmakers.

“I’ve just been working extra on my shooting,” Johnson said. “I’m also just trying to take care of my body and stay focussed as best I can. I’m just going to try to keep working. Even if I’m not hitting shots, I just keep on trying to work on my shot and my game, It’s eventually going to pay off if I just keep on working.

Johnson has raised his shooting percentages from the floor, free-throw line and behind the 3-point line. He’s averaging 14.4 points and a steal per game, but the most eye-popping contribution of his this season has been his work on the boards. He also scored a career-high 21 points on the road against the Texas A&M Aggies earlier this month.

As a freshman, Johnson averaged 3.1 rebounds per game, a number that he’s boosted to 6.7 per night through seven games in his sophomore campaign, which has been a big reason for the Vaqueros’ dominance in the battle on the boards in the early portion of the team’s nonconference slate.


University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Marek Nelson (11) attempts a basket against Texas A&M International during a nonconference game at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Both forward Marek Nelson and point guard Doc “Ricky” Nelson — a pair of transfers who redshirted last season after transferring to UTRGV from Western Kentucky and Weber State, respectively — have come on strong for the Vaqueros since making their program debuts this season. Both have worked their way into the team’s regular rotations since.

Doc Nelson made spot starts at point guard for Levi in each of the Vaqueros’ last two games at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and at home against Texas A&M-International.

In those two games, tallied a combined seven assists and five steals. He also served as one of the linchpins offensively for the Vaqueros in one of their best offensive games of the season against the Dustdevils on Monday, helping the team tally 20 collective assists.

“This was probably our best offensive output in terms of moving the ball, offensive rebounds and executing,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said in a postgame news conference Monday. “I was really thrilled with how unselfish we were tonight.”

Marek Nelson on the other hand has been a spark plug for UTRGV on the defensive end, especially as the Vaqueros press on for now without graduate transfer center Jeff Otchere, who still hasn’t played in a game this season yet due to a lingering preseason injury.

Nelson’s length and athleticism have made him one of UTRGV’s most versatile defenders with the physicality to play down low and the speed to switch when needed.

The Vaqueros’ forward has played in four games so far this season after missing the first three games of the season due to injury, but he’s shined in his time on the floor.

In his season debut against Our Lady of the Lake, Nelson dropped a season-high 12 points and also tallied 10 points in a game against the Aggies in College Station. However, through four games, he’s averaged 4.5 rebounds, a block and a steal per game while providing some invaluable help defense that’s made the Vaqueros winners in three of their last four games.

“He’s just getting better every game,” Hill said. “It’s like I told him, ‘You’ve been injured, you haven’t practice a lot and you haven’t played in almost two years, so it takes time.’ It takes time to get in a groove and get back to what you’re used to doing. I don’t want him to put unnecessary pressure on himself, so I just want him to ease his way into it and each game he’ll get better.”

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch