The state of Utah is surprisingly basketball-rich, and it’s most exciting program may surprise you.
Utah Valley has a realistic claim to that title, even with tradition-steeped programs like BYU, Weber State and Utah State, as well as high major Utah, within the border. The Wolverines play at blazing speed and have a coach challenging students to ping-pong and pitching a Bachelor spin-off starring his players.
Mark Pope, who spent time with three NBA teams after winning an NCAA championship at Kentucky, is entering his third year in charge at UVU. We didn’t talk about Bachelor details, but he was kind enough to spend time with us discussing the Wolverines’ tempo, final chances and more.
On the origins of Utah Valley’s break-neck pace:
[The Wolverines have finished in the top-13 in KenPom adjusted tempo in both of Pope’s two seasons in charge. Last year, they averaged a whopping 72.9 possessions per game. He played college basketball for Rick Pitino at Kentucky, for George Karl in Milwaukee and Denver in the NBA and was an assistant at BYU for Dave Rose.]
“It’s kind of been an accumulation of all the guys I’ve had a chance to work for. The common themes with the coaches I’ve worked under or played for is, interestingly, always the attitude of trying to be the aggressor. Coach Pitino certainly was that way while I was playing at Kentucky. George Karl, who I played for at different teams in the NBA, was always trying to be the aggressor on the match up, by making the other team match up to how he wanted. Dave Rose was really aggressive on the offensive end of the ball. As you go through my tree, that’s where everyone has kind of been.”
On whether it’s easy to sell the up-tempo pace to recruits:
“I think you can sell anything. But there are specific things I really like about it. One of those things is player development. There’s just the reality with the fact that we have so many more possessions in a game, and more posessions than most teams in our practices. I think that’s how guys improve; they improve in game time and live practice possessions. If I’ve got a point guard or wing that’s coming off 30 ball screens in live action a day, hes going to improve faster than a guy that has just has a chance to come off five ball screens in practice. Hopefully, I mean, theoretically. I like what it does for my locker room in terms of, we finish a game and everyone has a dozen possessions they’ve worked with. I like what it does in terms of my minutes, in that I have ten or 11 guys playing significant minutes. There are downsides, but those are the things I really like.”
On what it was like playing for Larry Bird:
[Pope made his NBA debut for the Larry Bird-coached Pacers in 1997, and spent two seasons in Indiana as a part of an NBA career that stretched until 2005.]
“He was built from work. It wasn’t just his skills; his confidence was built from work. He said a thousand times in interviews and to us that, ‘hey I believe I deserved the last shot every game because I took more shots every week then my team in practice. I deserve to make that shot because of the hard work.’ For him there was an incredible correlation between work and performance, and I know that sounds so incredibly mundane and cliched, but I’m telling you, in this generation of players, this correlation between performance and really hard work and investment is becoming less and less clear. It’s so incredibly weird. I could take an encyclopedia from him, it was such a privilege to play for him.”
On whether he can remember any particular run-ins with Dan Majerle while both were in the NBA:
“Coach was a little before my time, I was coming in at the very end of his career. There were really no on court incidents because he was spending a lot more time on the court, and I was spending a lot more time on the bench. Come on, Dan was an All-Star and I was a bit player. But there’s a brotherhood between everyone that had Jerry West on their shoulder because it’s such a neat experience.”
On whether transfers will be a staple of his UVU program, or if he eventually plans to focus more on high school recruits:
“I knew coming into this, who knew Utah Valley, right? I knew coming into this, for us to get the talent we wanted it was going to be hard with freshmen. You have to find a really unique individual that knows what he wants to turn down that signing day glitz and come to our place and put faith in us. So we’ve been able to get much better talent with the transfer route. I also like guys that are on their last chance. I love coaching guys that have been through some hard times, that have experienced some failure or shortcoming, and I get to get them on the back end. It keeps us old, which has been really important as we try and establish this program. I hope that as we develop a reputation and the program becomes respected and grows in statute, we’ll be able to transition into some more four year guys. Right now 14 of my 16 players are transfers. That’s got to be close to the highest percentage in America, and I love it.”
On what he took away from an up-and-down 2016-17 that finished on a positive note, with a run to both the WAC Tournament and CBI semifinals:
“Nobody schedules this hard and there’s a reason why, and it’s because it’s so hard on you team. Last year we played such a hard non-conference schedule and played 23 road games. It just takes a toll. There’s no way around it. We played five buy games and won two of them. The reason coaches don’t do it is because you get to mid-season and your team is dead. That happened to us and we paid a price. We got to the middle of conference season and my guys were toast. What we were able to do was find ourselves, resurrect ourselves and find our groove, and played our best basketball.”
On this year’s non-conference schedule, which opens with a brutal back-to-back at Kentucky and Duke:
“Last year emboldened me a little bit. I’m expecting the same trajectory this year. Our non-conference schedule is impossibly hard but it’s going to challenge us and break us and wear us out, and somewhere in the middle of the season we’re going to flat line and be frustrated, but we’ll put the pieces back together and by the end of the season be a really good basketball team. I’m not interested in scheduling 20 wins. It’s smart and coaches do it to keep their job and keep their team focused and positive. I’m just not that smart, I want to go play guys, I want to play hard and really do believe that even though I’m sure we’ll take hits in the middle season because we’re exhausted, at the end of the day we’ll be the best team we can be.”
On what Isaac Neilson has to do to take the next step:
[The BYU transfer forward had a breakout season in 2016-17, averaging 9.6 points and 9.1 rebounds in just 21.9 minutes per game.]
“Statistically he was really good. Two things really hampered him. One thing was his ability to guard ball screens and that’s something he’s really working on, simply his mobility. He’s really worked this summer on trying to be better in those situations, and we’re trying to scheme better to give him more opportunities to be successful. And then his percentage of possessions to turnovers was higher than it should have been, so just simplifying his game even more. I expect him to have a terrific season for us.”
On Brandon Randolph and what he has been working on this summer:
[The Xavier transfer guard struggled at times with turnovers during his first in Orem, but had an overall solid season running the fast-paced attack (10.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.9 APG).]
“I want Brandon to make the transition to a real point guard. And that’s not easy. We’ve seen point guards in our league fail to make that transition. We’ve had some great point guards in our league, and some that showed great promise but could never become leaders or great decision makers. He’s made huge strides — incredible strides — in his decision making, in his aiblity to extend the play and kind of live to fight another day in offensive possessions. In the last few months we’ve seen him grow so much in his savvy and patience in the game. If he can continue on this road he’s going to be great for us, he’s really worked hard this summer.”
On the impact Akolda Manyang can have this season:
[Manyang is a 7’0’’ center that transferred to UVU after being dismissed by Oklahoma in July 2016. In one season with the Sooners, Manyang was a bit player (8.0 MPG) but flashed big-time rim protecting potential with a block rate of 16.6 percent].
“I’m so proud of him because he’s made so many strides in his life. I’ve been so proud of him off the court and in the locker room, he’s been great for our guys. This is a second chance, a third chance for him, and he’s taking full advantage of it. He’s a beautiful young man. And he’s a prolific shot blocker, only playing about 10 minutes a game his junior year at Oklahoma he was the third-leading shot blocker in the league, in the Big 12. And the Big 12 was really good, on a team that went to the Final Four. We’ve worked hard with him to simplify his game in the post. He’s embraced it and I think he has a chance to have a really special senior year.”
On whether having schools that prioritize college basketball within the state has been helpful:
“No doubt about that. Basketball in this state is really fun. Even though as a collective group we didn’t have a great year last year, basketball in this state is really good. We have six universities all with basketball programs, and though I think we’ve moved quickly up the ranks, we probably have the least history. I think it’s great for us. Our open gyms during the summer are awesome. We work hard to invite everybody from around the state down here. Guys would go to Salt Lake Community College because it was the neutral ground. We used to be the neutral ground until we started beating these guys, it’s gotten harder. It’s really a great opportunity for all the players in the summer, they’ve got six Div. I programs here and they can get together and go at it, and they do. It’s a huge advantage. I think we have a great state for basketball and programs that are really growing. It’s really exciting.”