It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the 2016-17 Utah Valley University men’s basketball team, but perhaps that is to be expected.
This is a squad filled with players who have hit the restart button on their careers. If any team knows what it’s like to get a second chance, it’s this one, and the Western Athletic Conference tournament this week provides the Wolverines a collective opportunity to do what so many of its players are experiencing individually.
Mark Pope, currently in his second year as the head coach at UVU, is building his initial roster with a second-chance theme. Of the 16 players in the UVU program, 11 have previously played college basketball elsewhere, including eight on the active roster and three others currently redshirting.
The Wolverines feature four junior college transfers along with players who have come over from major college programs at Brigham Young University, University of Utah, St. Cloud State, Xavier and Oklahoma.
“We had no reputation whatsoever,” Pope said. “We’re trying to grow that and I think we’re making some good progress on those things, but that was a hard process (and) we knew we had to go transfer and junior college to get the level of talent that we needed.”
“We had no reputation whatsoever. We’re trying to grow that and I think we’re making some good progress on those things, but that was a hard process (and) we knew we had to go transfer and junior college to get the level of talent that we needed.” — Mark Pope, UVU basketball coach
That works for the UVU coach, who has a special draw towards the kind of players you find through the transfer process. Pope enjoys that part of recruiting.
“The truth is that your first time through the recruiting process you are much more likely to get tricked by the glitz and the glam and the fans and the TV and the reputation and all that kind of stuff because you don’t know any better,” Pope said. “You just haven’t had a college experience so you don’t know until you go to college and see what really is going to matter to you. When you deal with a transfer they’ve at least had a look and some experience.”
The process of incorporating so many new faces from so many different places accounts for some of the up-and-down nature of the season. The team is one game under .500 at 14–15 but has had some high points.
After overcoming a 27-point deficit to win at Denver, the Wolverines went into the Marriott Center and shot the lights out, beating BYU 114–101. They had a late lead in the Huntsman Center against Utah, but could not hold on. In conference play, UVU ended New Mexico State’s 40-game conference home winning streak and the nation’s third longest overall home winning streak (23) with an 84–72 win Feb. 23.
“We’re learning so much about our team in every single game,” Pope said. “We’re trying to force a growth process on a group of guys that has very little background together and we’re trying to force it to happen really fast. Almost by definition that’s going to come with some messiness along the way. We’re not scared of that. I think as a staff and a program, we’re embracing that.”
The Transfer Experience
The players come to UVU for many different reasons. Some, like former BYU player Isaac Neilson, needed a fresh start because it didn’t work out at a previous stop. Others, like Xavier transfer Brandon Randolph just needed a change of scenery.
Things (at BYU) just didn’t work out,” Neilson said. “Coach Pope was very supportive and he helped me get through a lot of it. I liked the genuine feeling that he had towards me. He said that he was going to recruit the heck out of me and he did just that.”
Randolph is from Inglewood, California, where he played at three different high schools before landing at Xavier in Ohio. He played for Xavier his first two years of college ball.
“It was a style of play (at Xavier) that just didn’t fit me,” Randolph said. “I’m basically an up-tempo person and I know they’re playing that now. When I was there, he was slowing it down and we played in and out. (Pope) lets his players play through things, like if they make a bad turnover, that’s not what he’s worried about. He wants you to learn from your mistakes and that’s what really got me into the coaching staff because they help you grow as a player.”
From his playing days, Pope can relate to a player that has a little something extra for which to play. He sees that in these transfers.
“I have a locker room full of guys that feel like … they have a chip on their shoulder and they have a whole group of people that have kind of written them off and said you’re not good enough,” Pope said. “I think that’s a source of strength. I think that there’s a well of energy that you can keep going back to to inspire your guys to play hard.”
Randolph keeps pushing because he feels he has a lot to prove, mostly to himself.
“When I transferred, I really had that chip on my shoulder because I felt like I needed to prove, not to (other) people at all, but to myself, that I was still capable of being the player that I was coming out of high school,” Randolph said. “That’s the reason I worked so hard my redshirt year, trying to get better, because I really wanted to make this year one where people would say, ‘Why did they let him go?'”
A Tough Business
Neilson is strengthened because he has already learned a lot about life from college career basketball. He might have lost a year of eligibility by coming to UVU instead of first playing a year at a junior college, but he knew that was the best option for him, allowing him to add 30 to 40 pounds from his BYU playing weight.
“I’ve learned that this business is tough,” Neilson said. “In high school you get this feeling that I’m just going to play and have a great time and just have a heck of a career. You get there and find out there’s a lot of hard work and there’s a lot of things that could go wrong and a lot of things that could go right and do go right. For me, pushing through the hard things is one thing that I’ve learned.”
Now comes the team’s opportunity at its next second chance. Coming off a regular-season ending win over Seattle Saturday night, the Wolverines have a rematch with the Redhawks to open Western Athletic Conference tournament play Thursday. Though his team needs to do it the hard way, Pope’s play hasn’t changed.
“Our goal is to make the NCAA tournament and what that means is we have to win three games at the end of the season and that’s so hard,” Pope said. “That’s our tangible goal. Our less tangible goal is that we get better every single day. ”
As the Wolverines prepare for this weekend, Randolph is one transfer with tournament experience to share. He played in quite a few NCAA tournament games at Xavier.
“One thing I can share with my teammates from playing in those big games is towards the end, defense wins games,” Randolph said. “In those big games, you have to put the ball in the hole, but defense is going to determine if you win or not.”
“People come to our school looking for another chance or a restart and they’re coming to our school and just crushing it, and hopefully that’s what our players will do also.” — Mark Pope, UVU basketball coach
Whatever the final result this season, Pope seems to be onto something when it comes to building his program. He sees it as the perfect fit for the school it represents.
“There’s something about our university also that we have high-level students and we also have students that just haven’t lived a perfect life coming up to college,” Pope said. “They haven’t got perfect grades and they haven’t had perfect everything and maybe they went through tricky times, but they’re here now and they’re even more hungry to go be successful. People come to our school looking for another chance or a restart and they’re coming to our school and just crushing it, and hopefully that’s what our players will do also.”
UVU (6–8, 14–15) finished fifth in the final WAC standings, but with third-place Grand Canyon still on provisional status and not eligible for the postseason, the Wolverines enter the tournament as the No. 4 seed. They face No. 5 Seattle University (5–9, 13–16) Thursday, March 9 at 3 p.m. MT at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. The winner will face conference champion CSU Bakersfield (12–2, 21-8) Friday night.