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Development not quantity the key to Utah Valley’s transfer frenzy

The early returns are good for Mark Pope and the Wolverines.

NCAA Basketball: Utah Valley at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

That a team is the new Iowa State when it comes to transfers has become a compliment. The Cyclones — primarily under Fred Hoiberg — lifted themselves to relevance in part with players that started their careers elsewhere.

This isn’t breaking news, and neither is the explosion in the transfer market (even if the results may not be what they seem). Nevada has probably been the most notable mid-major bulking up on non-grad transfers and using them to great success. Last season, Marcus Marshall (Missouri State) and Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois) were big parts of an NCAA Tournament team. And this season, Kendall Stephens (Purdue) and Cody and Caleb Martin (NC State) become eligible, with a cavalry of transfers waiting for 2018-19.

Even though it hasn’t reached those heights, Utah Valley deserves the Iowa State compliment too.

When Mark Pope took over in 2015, he inherited an 11-win team full of juniors and seniors. Of that roster, only then-sophomore Zach Nelson would become a multi-year rotation player. To accelerate a rebuild, Pope loaded up on transfers. This was highlighted by the Deseret News’ Brandon Gurney earlier this summer:

Since arriving at UVU in 2015, Pope has pursued transfers vigorously and with a good measure of success. Nine transfers entered the program just prior to the former BYU assistant's first year at the helm, and four more joined on the year after. Of the 16 players currently listed on the Utah Valley roster, 11 of those are transfers and seven of those 11 transfers are from four-year programs.

Pope hasn’t signed players from lower-rated or lateral leagues, but instead has pulled in highly-regarded talent from places like BYU (naturally), Utah, Xavier and Oklahoma. He’s also signed a pair of MAC players in Kent State’s Jerrelle DeBerry (eligible this year) and Eastern Michigan’s Baylee Steele (eligible next year).

Infusing the team with raw talent is great on its own. It’s part of the reason that despite an uneven season in 2016-17, the Wolverines were able to beat BYU and New Mexico State, and give Utah and Utah State close games. But the real success in the transfer plan hinges on those players developing once at UVU. It wasn’t that a guy like Royce White showed up at Iowa State, it was that the Cyclone coaching staff helped turn him into an All-Big 12 player.

One year in, the early returns have been positive for Pope.

Isaac Neilson sat out the 2015-16 season after transferring from BYU. From what he told the Desert News last December, he put that time to good use.

"It was just about lifting and lifting and lifting, and always making sure I am eating more than I can," Neilson said. "The coaches really helped me with that. They provided the means for me to bulk up. (It involves) lots of protein."

The added bulk is working.

"I don't get pushed around as easy as I did at BYU. I think the most important thing is I am able to hold my own on defense and people aren't able to shove me out of the way. I'm able to jump up and get rebounds without being thrown off my spot," said Neilson, who added he's looking to put on a couple more pounds after this season. "I feel a lot stronger, and I'm able to power through guys a lot more."

All that work showed on the court last season. Neilson was an interior force in league play, finishing first in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage as he hauled down 9.1 rebounds per game. He also nearly doubled his block percentage (6.7%) from what it was in his lone season at BYU.

Pope brought in a bit player and a year later had an All-WAC performer. As good a program as BYU is, it doesn’t follow that placing a given Cougar on a WAC roster will automatically make that player a star. That’s development.

UVU’s two other high-profile transfers also showed progress last season.

For what it’s worth, Kenneth Ogbe averaged 23.6 minutes per game and appeared in every contest except one. This was a change from his injury-riddled final two seasons at Utah. Brandon Randolph didn’t make an immediate jump to stardom after the talented guard transferred from Xavier. But his shot selection improved as the season went on, and he had a tall order running the show in one of the fastest-paced offenses in the country.

This year, DeBerry, Akolda Manyang (Oklahoma), Cody Calvert (BYU) and Jake Toolson (BYU) get the latest crack at showing what they’ve been up to in their season on the sidelines. UVU may eventually focus more on the conventional high school recruit. But if those four show the progress their teammates did a year ago, Pope and UVU may simply continue to go to the transfer well.