EDINBURG — It’s been nearly two decades since Matt Figger’s basketball coaching career first led him to the Rio Grande Valley.
As an assistant at Odessa College during the early 2000s, Figger recalled making the lengthy drive from West Texas to Weslaco while hitting the Texas high school hoops recruiting circuit.
After spending 19 years as a Division I assistant and head coach, however, Figger made his return to the RGV and was presented as UTRGV’s next men’s basketball head coach during an introductory news conference Tuesday morning at UTRGV Fieldhouse.
“I feel like I’m coming home,” Figger said. “In 2002, the hardest thing I had to do was pack up a pickup truck and leave the state of Texas. Well, fast forward 19 years and I’m back, so I’m extremely excited to be here.”
“What we have in Coach Figger is simple: He’s a winner,” UTRGV Vice President and Athletic Director Chasse Conque said. “He does it the right way. He cares about people. He cares about relationships. He cares about community, he’s a family man and he’s worked with some of the best (coaches) in the country.”
Figger, a Kentucky native, has served as an assistant coach at several DI schools across the country where there has been one constant: winning.
He started as an assistant at South Alabama, where he helped lead the Jaguars to an NCAA Tournament appearance and transitioned into a brief stint at Arkansas before joining Frank Martin’s coaching staffs at both Kansas State and South Carolina.
Figger helped lead the Wildcats and later the Gamecocks on deep postseason runs, propelling Kansas State to the Elite Eight in 2010 and South Carolina to its first ever Final Four appearance in 2017.
He earned a reputation with the Wildcats and Gamecocks as a top-tier recruiter. Figger signed a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans, while serving as the recruiting coordinator at Kansas State. He said he’s eager to return to Texas to recruit one of the most talent-rich high school basketball states across the nation.
“The state of Texas is the best high school basketball in the entire country,” he said. “Look at all the rosters across the country and you see oodles and oodles of kids from the state of Texas on 357 Division I programs’ rosters. A lot of the leading scores in the country come from the state of Texas, and (those aren’t) even the kids who play for the top-tier AAU programs. The coaching and the depth of the players in the state (are) great. (Texas high school) basketball since I left Odessa has just kept getting better.”
Figger spent the last four years of his coaching career as the head coach at Austin Peay, where he amassed a 76-41 overall record. He earned the Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year award during the 2017-18 season, his first as a head coach, after leading the Governors to a 19-15 overall record.
He led Austin Peay to four consecutive winning seasons before electing to make the jump to UTRGV, where he takes over for the late Lew Hill, who led the Vaqueros for five seasons before dying unexpectedly in early February.
Figger said he admired what Hill was able to build and accomplish at UTRGV, citing the program’s foundation that had built in recent seasons as his motivation to make the switch from Austin Peay.
“My plan is that we’re going to honor Coach Hill next season,” he said. “Every one of those games that (we) take that court and get on the floor, (we’re) going to be honoring one man and he will be there with us in the locker room on this court on the bench. … I want to make that a proclamation right now that we’re going to fight our tails off and represent him the right way.”
Figger’s teams at Austin Peay were known for their defensive tenacity after he helped the Governors improve by 12.6 points per game allowed during his first season, the second-largest year-to-year defensive improvement among all DI teams in 2017-18.
It’s a philosophy and approach that matches the Vaqueros’ brand of hard-nosed defensive basketball and fits UTRGV’s returning roster.
Figger and his coaching staff will have their work cut out for them, though, with the NCAA’s revamped transfer rules amid the COVID-19 pandemic that grant every DI player an additional year of eligibility and the ability to transfer anywhere without penalty.
That leaves the Vaqueros’ roster in flux heading into next season, with several seniors still noncommittal on their status, while others — including senior point guard Javon Levi, redshirt junior power forward Sean Rhea and sophomore forward Quinton Johnson II — have already announced their intentions to enter the transfer portal.
Figger said he anticipates returning most of last season’s contributors who remain while adding depth through both the transfer portal and high school recruiting to round out UTRGV’s lineup for his first season in Edinburg.
“We’re going to put people in this building and we’re going to give them an exciting style of play. We’re going to make things fun,” Figger said. We’re going to have a lot of people in here cheering for you guys and we’re going to make this the hardest place in this conference to play it. Every team that comes in place is going to know that they’ve been challenged because this place is going to be full of people, I guarantee you. We’re going to get out in the community and we’re going to sell this program.”