The Western Athletic Conference released its men’s basketball preseason polls and honors Monday, and UTRGV forward Justin Johnson garnered first-team preseason All-WAC men’s basketball honors as voted by the WAC coaches.

Johnson, a senior, ranked second in the WAC in scoring last season, averaging 18.8 points while shooting 48.9% from the field in 18 conference games. His performance during WAC play earned him an All-WAC second-team selection and all-newcomer team recognition.

Overall, he averaged 17.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists on a 50.1% clip in 31 games, including 29 starts.

Johnson is just one of two returners from last season’s squad, with 13 new players joining the team. Redshirt freshman Lee Hatcher, who did not see game action last year, is the team’s only other returner.

“I’m just stepping up and being more of a leader on and off the floor,” Johnson said. “Coach preaches that to me every day, just coming in and being an everyday guy. Knowing what he expects lets me be a leader to the guys and help them learn new stuff, and learning the system and how they can dwell in the system.”

With 13 new faces on the roster, the Vaqueros were picked to finish 13th out of 13 teams in both the WAC preseason coaches and media polls.

Grand Canyon University was picked to finish first in both polls, with the team’s junior guard, Jovan Blacksher Jr., picked as the conference’s preseason player of the year.

Despite being picked to finish last, the retooled Vaqueros are ready to hit the court and prove people wrong.

“I would say right now we’re in the best shape we can possibly be,” UTRGV forward Dima Zdor said. “We’re ready to play fast, defend and play physical. It’s been a process since June 1 when we started. It has been a process. We’ve been through it, and the whole team stayed together and battled. The biggest thing I would say is we’re very coachable. At this point, as coach said, we just need somebody in a different color jersey to prove what we can do on the court.”

Zdor, a 6-foot-10 graduate transfer from Grand Canyon University, is one of the team’s new big men, joined by 7-foot-0 forward Alek Horiuk.

Junior college transfers Derrius Ward and C.J. Jackson add a pair of lengthy guards alongside Johnson. Ward and Jackson are two of five JUCO transfers who were previous Division I recruits joining the Vaqueros.

“That was a criteria for me because I coached JUCO ball and it’s a different step when you move from junior college to division I,” UTRGV head coach Matt Figger said. “The demands and physicality and everything that is required out of junior college players, it takes them time to adjust. But when you have guys who have already been at that level, that were recruited at a Division I level, there was an opportunity that they may not have had at that first school that they were able to blossom in their roles at junior college. I’ve seen the build and why they’d be recruited at those schools. That was a priority for us. They’ve all been doing well. They all have one thing in common. They’re all very winning and unselfish players.”

The Vaqueros get a first look at their retooled team during an exhibition game at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at the UTRGV Fieldhouse in Edinburg. They’ll officially kick off the season at 8 p.m. Nov. 7 against Kansas State at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kansas.

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