As we enter the home stretch in conference play everybody is going to be looking for this year's Florida Gulf Coast. That's why we've put together "Cinderella Watch" to profile all the mid-major teams you should know before heading into March.
Utah Valley Wolverines
Western Athletic Conference
Overall Record: 18-10
Conference Record: 12-3
Key Wins: New Mexico State (73)
Worst Losses: UMKC (240), South Dakota (246), Seattle (257)
Average RPI Win: 251
Average RPI Loss: 144
NCAA Tournament History: No appearances
Formerly of the now-defunct Great West conference, the Wolverines made the move with fellow Great West schools Chicago State and Texas-Pan American to the WAC for the 2013-2014 season. At the outset, not much was expected of Utah Valley who was projected to end up 7th place in the WAC. However, the Wolverines had different plans.
Utah Valley ended its non-conference schedule at 6-7 having played two ranked schools along the way (#8 Oklahoma State & #17 Oregon, both on the road). Then, something clicked for the Wolverines. Thanks in large part to unexpected contributions from newcomer forwards Mitch Bruneel (transfer from Utah State) and Zach Nelson (freshman), they won their first seven conference games while conference-favorite New Mexico State stumbled, leaving Utah Valley in first place halfway through the conference schedule.
New Mexico State would then dominate Utah Valley in Las Cruces by a score of 72-49, handing the Wolverines their first conference loss. Utah Valley then lost to Seattle and UMKC before defeating New Mexico State in an overtime game I'm sure everyone remembers. Now, with just one week remaining in the conference season, the Wolverines face a much easier final game (Cal State Bakersfield at home) than New Mexico State does (Grand Canyon at home) with the Aggies a game back and figure to enter the WAC tournament with the 1-seed.
Key Player: Holton Hunsaker
The four-year starter and son of head coach Dick Hunsaker is the play-maker for this very experienced Utah Valley team. Hunsaker the younger has had plenty of time to learn the ins and outs of the game, having averaged over 30 minutes in his four years at Utah Valley, and he's ready to put his slick moves to the test in the Big Dance. He averages 13.5 ppg and is has 85.6 percent accuracy from the charity stripe.
Why They Will Succeed in March
Chris Dobbertean of Blogging the Bracket has Utah Valley projected as a play-in 16-seed facing off against Alabama State for the right to play 1-seed Syracuse. However, should Utah Valley win its play-in game, it has some things going for it that could make a game against a 1-seed interesting.
The Wolverines are insanely experienced. Seniors Ben Aird and Hunsaker have been starting alongside each other for four years now and know each other's strengths better than anyone. It's not uncommon for starters on this team to play for 35 minutes or longer in a game and their bench doesn't go all that deep. It's because of this that the Wolverines are able to avoid silly mistakes that players with less experience would normally make. This is one of the major factors that could come to their aid if they face a freshman-laden team in the tournament (like many of the 1-seeded teams are).
Utah Valley is also extremely accurate as a team from the free-throw line (75.7 percent, 12th in the nation) which would be a huge advantage if the game was close. Conversely, the Wolverines are also very good at defending without fouling and are 42nd in the nation in fewest fouls per game (17.3) which would help them against an opposing team that relies on getting to the line to score its points (like Wichita State, a possible 1-seed).
All in all, Utah Valley has already shocked the world with its dominance in the WAC. However, the Wolverines still have plenty to prove and could be a fun team to watch if they manage to grab the conference's auto-bid.