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Changing of the WAC? How Utah Valley became a power in the league

From Hunsaker, to Pope, to Madsen, and to whoever might be next, a mid major is growing no matter who is in charge.

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Go back to Feb. 15, 2018 and New Mexico State was doing what it has so often done in the WAC: cruising. At the time, the Chris Jans-led Aggies were winners of 11 straight and with a top-50 KenPom rating and non-conference wins over Miami and Davidson were maybe, just maybe, on the cusp of the at-large conversation.

But it’s not easy to go to Orem.

That night, Utah Valley put a dent into NMSU’s perfect league start, as the Wolverines made a barrage of 3s and came out with a seven-point win in a back-and-forth game. Then-UVU coach Mark Pope called it a special night for the program.

“It was really important for us to win this game. We know how good New Mexico State is and they’re dominating our league right now,” he said after the game.

That Aggies team would ultimately win the WAC regular season and tournament titles but, for that one night, the story was not about NMSU’s league supremacy. While the coaches and players are different, there is something familiar between that 2018 win and the Wolverines’ run to this year’s NIT semifinals. Many may not have entirely expected it, but it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

In a sense, this year has been a coming out party for UVU. There’s the 28-8 record, WAC regular season title and postseason wins over New Mexico and Colorado on the road, and the home win over Cincinnati last Wednesday in the UCCU Center to set up a Tuesday date with UAB in Las Vegas.

“It has meant everything. The opportunity to play two nationally-televised games and win both. Then, to be able to hold a home game on ESPN 2, the first ever on the ESPN linear family of networks was massive,” said Kyle McDonald, a UVU alum that founded the preeminent source on WAC basketball,

But, really, the Wolverines have long been there, lurking just under the surface in their almost two-decade existence as a Division I program.

The Wolverines were, in fact, the first regular season champion of what can loosely be traced to the current iteration of the WAC’s inaugural campaign in 2013-14. Under Dick Hunsaker, the team joined the league along with Grand Canyon and UT Rio Grande Valley and promptly won the title with a 20-12 (13-3) season in their debut. If nothing else, that season provided footing alongside an established program in NMSU and an ambitious one in GCU that would rise to the top of the league pecking order.

Pope would come in and elevate the program during his four seasons in charge. The NBA veteran was an early adopter — and savant — at using the transfer portal to bring high-level talent to Orem, developing players like Brandon Randolph, Kenneth Ogbe, Jake Toolson and Akolda Manyang who left bigger programs.

Pope talked to this very website about that approach before the 2017-18 season.

“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,” he said. “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.”

That talent infusion and an adaptable approach — first massively up-tempo, then less so — helped the Wolverines become a legitimate contender in the WAC, particularly over the latter half of his tenure. His teams won 58% of their league games, which went up to 73% in his last two years from 2017-19. Both of those years ended in losses to the ‘Lopes in the WAC Tournament semifinals, but the program showed some serious juice for a mid major.

For one, there was the high-scoring, crosstown breakthrough against BYU in November 2016, which saw the teams combine to top the double century mark in regulation as the Wolverines left the Marriott Center with a 114-101 victory. At the time, it was the second-most points scored on the Cougars home floor and though Pope would ultimately leave for BYU, the symbolic win sent UVU on its way. Since then, the Wolverines have gone 3-3 against the Cougars, including winning that matchup the past two years.

That may have been the signature win of the Pope era, but his teams in 2017-18 (23-11, No. 92 KenPom) and 2018-19 (25-10, No. 104 KenPom) showed that UVU could be a consistent mid-major winner. And one that packs considerable punch.

Mark Madsen continued that trend, rebuilding the roster when Pope left for Provo with his own parade of transfer hits, such as now-gone Fardaws Aimaq, and current stars Trey Woodbury and Aziz Bandaogo. Add in non-transfer players like Justin Harmon and Le’tre Darthard and the program has not lacked for all-league level talent as the team has gone 34-15 in WAC play over the past three seasons.

That culminated this year in its first regular season title since that 2013-14 team, and seemed certain to end in the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance before it let a 23-point second half slip to Southern Utah in the WAC Tournament semifinals.

But UVU has made lemonade from the lemons of that loss.

The Wolverines blew past New Mexico early and Colorado late, and then kept the Bearcats at arms length over the last stretch of their win last week in front of a raucous home crowd. The run alone has meant a trio of KenPom top 71 wins, and added to the impressive list of schools Madsen has taken down, which already includes Oregon, Washington and, of course, Pope’s Cougars.

That the big moments have continued to roll in has stood out to McDonald.

“It’s been a process but each coach has put their own stamp on things,” he said. “Pope with the win over BYU, Madsen with the titles and Power 5 wins. It’s been an impressive decade or so of growth.”

That growth may need to continue with yet another man patrolling the sidelines, as Madsen is rumored to be close to taking over at Cal. The program, however, has done nothing the past 10 years but show that it can be a permanent factor on the mid-major landscape, no matter who is in charge. It’s under the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip that the country may finally be taking notice of that.