UVU junior Conner Toolson is one of eight returning players on UVU’s basketball team. (Photo from UVU Marketing)

Tough is one way to put it. Some less optimistic critics would call it “nearly impossible,” but UVU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope is using a “tough” season-opener series as a road map for the rest of the 2017–18 season.

UVU men’s basketball team is making history this weekend with what the team is calling the “toughest 24 hours in college basketball history.” In a 24-hour period, UVU will travel to No. 5 Kentucky followed by No. 1 Duke the following night for back-to-back games.

When Pope announced the “Toughest 24” in June, he had the nation blinking at UVU’s audacity. SportsCenter’s Kevin Connor even named UVU the “Star of the Night” on June 10 for the indescribably tenacious schedule.

“Find another coach in America that’s signing up for that,” Connor said in the segment. “Then again, what’s better than the Pope in two cathedrals of basketball?”

Besides both Duke and Kentucky earning Top 5 preseason rankings, together the two programs combine for a total of 13 national titles. Duke ranks No. 1 for its 2017 recruiting class while Kentucky follows closely behind at No. 2, according to 247sports.com. How did Pope pull off a schedule with such high ranking team for the season-opening games? Easily.

“This would all be for nothing if we didn’t play like us.” — Mark Pope, UVU basketball coach

“It was easier than you think,” Pope said. “Nobody wants to play Kentucky and Duke as their opener because they haven’t lost an opener in like 100,000 years. So it wasn’t that hard. It was more difficult for us to decide if we were going to do (the games) this way.”

This way is holding two challenging matches within a 24-hour period.

“I like the fact that we’re going to two hallowed gyms,” Pope said. “I like that fact that we’re playing against the most talented basketball players in all of college basketball to start the season. I like the fact that we’re playing three games on the road in the matter of five days. It’s going to feel very much like the turnaround that we’re going to have to fix and we’re going to have to face in a live tournament.”

Of course, UVU’s ultimate goal is to win both games this weekend. But the even bigger goal is for these games is to serve as a launching pad for the rest of the season.

“This would all be for nothing if we didn’t play like us,” Pope said. Pope doesn’t want his team distracted by the energy of the gyms they will play in. Instead, he wants his team to zero in on UVU’s team identity.

UVU already has its eye on the prize — an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. And they plan on getting there by winning three games in a row during the WAC Tournament at the end of the season.

“We’re going to get a look at that at the very beginning of the season and then we have five months to figure out how we can be better,” Pope said.

UVU coach Mark Pope said it was easier than most people think to set up the “Toughest 24” schedule. (Photo by August Miller, UVU Marketing)

And there is no better way to prepare for the NCAA Tournament than to play the types of teams that UVU would see if the Wolverines won those final three games of the season.

In preparation for the games, UVU junior Conner Toolson said has said coaches had started scaling back on practices.

“We’ve definitely lightened up a little bit,” Toolson said. “We’ve been going for so long, so hard doing two-a-days. Now we’re starting to get into games. I think it’s important for us to get our bodies ready to go out and be able to give it 100 percent, so we’re not broken down.”

The Wolverines hope to improve their offensive flow in these games. And, of course, they hope to win.

“A successful weekend would be to win, first of all,” Toolson said. “And the second thing would be to be able to find out the things that we can do better and really to gain confidence from this trip, so we can know what we are able to do throughout the season to the end of the season.”

Pope is excited about how lucrative the Toughest 24 has already been for the basketball program and the university.

“All summer long (the players) got to think about how we are starting the season and then prepare for it because that work is going to carry on past these two days,” Pope said. “There’s a lot of reasons that we love it. It’s going to be really challenging and we’re excited to get to it.”

UVU plays No. 5 Kentucky on Friday, Nov. 10 at 5 p.m. at Rupp Arena. The following night UVU travels to North Carolina to play No. 1 Duke at 5 p.m. MT. The game against Kentucky will be televised on the SEC Network. In Utah, the game will be broadcast on DirecTV (611), DISH (408/404/596-599), Comcast XFINITY (286 and 765). The SEC Network is also available online at ESPN.com/Watch. UVU’s game against Duke will be televised on ACC Network Extra.

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