OREM — Utah Valley University embarks on its new era in the Western Athletic Conference on Friday when it welcomes IUPUI of the Summit League in a 7:05 p.m. MT tip from the UCCU Center.
For the first time since the 2008-09 season, the Wolverines will open the schedule with a pair of home games with North Carolina A&T coming in Monday night.
IUPUI hails from Indianapolis and defeated Utah Valley in the team’s season opener last year, 67-54. It’s the only prior meeting between the programs. Friday’s game can be heard on 960 AM the Zone and will air on UVU-TV and online at WolverineGreen.com.
Third-year head coach Todd Howard returns senior center Mitchell Patton, whose 13.7 ppg leads all Jaguar returners. The Wolverines are the only WAC program IUPUI will face this season. Utah Valley has one other Summit League school on its schedule in North Dakota State. IUPUI defeated Kentucky State by 12 in an exhibition on Nov. 2.
UVU returns four players, all seniors, from last year’s roster including preseason first-team All-WAC selection Ben Aird and second team pick Holton Hunsaker. Both players were on the All-Great West first team in that conference’s final season. Joining Aird and Hunsaker in the senior class and as the returning letterwinners are Taylor Brown and Keawe Enos.
“They’re all outstanding citizens and leaders and really lift our team on and off the court,” said 12th-year head coach Dick Hunsaker. “We’re going to rely on their leadership but at the same time we’re going to need the newcomers to hit the court running. We’ll need them to have a good grasp on the system, the style of play and the expectations we have.”
Among the newcomers to this season’s roster are Mitch Bruneel, who redshirted last season after transferring from Utah State, and Zach Nelson, who redshirted three years ago before serving an LDS mission. Other newcomers include junior college transfers Chad Ross and Hayes Garrity.
Those four, along with freshmen Eli Robison, who's home from an LDS mission, and Marquis Salmon, all had the opportunity to travel as a group of 10 players to China in August. The team played seven games against professional teams from China, Australia and Lithuania.
“We were able to take six new players and everyone got a lot of playing time," Hunsaker. "It was a wonderful experience and hopefully that will pay great dividends for us."
The trip overseas gave Utah Valley the opportunity to get its feet wet with those six newcomers instead of jumping right into a schedule that has three of its first four games against 2013 NCAA Tournament participants, two of which are in the top 20.
Following the Nov. 11 game against A&T, a team that won its conference tournament and a game in the NCAA Tournament, UVU will travel to Stillwater, Okla., to face eighth-ranked Oklahoma State and consensus All-American Marcus Smart. A week later, UVU will travel to No. 18 Oregon in Eugene.
“A year ago we played 19 games away from the UCCU Center. It’s a little more balanced this year in terms of home and away games but we do have a very challenging schedule,” Hunsaker said. “Oklahoma State and Oregon will be a great challenge. We obviously have our eyes wide open and know the level of competition we’ll be facing.”
Part of that challenge includes home games against Weber State and North Dakota State and a road game at Utah State, all before WAC play gets underway in early January.
“In-state games are always something our players and fans enjoy and Weber State and Utah State are both outstanding programs with great teams this season,” Hunsaker said. “We’re excited as we move into the WAC and into a conference with an automatic bid. The kids have paid their dues for that opportunity and some kids came here for that opportunity.”
The conference schedule tips off on Jan. 4 at Bakersfield and ends March 8 against the same Roadrunners. Utah Valley was picked fourth by the coaches and media, third by Athlon Sports and fifth by Blue Ribbon.
The league’s turnover brings a lot of unfamiliarity and uncertainty and saw an array of different predictions by most experts with one exception — New Mexico State was seemingly a unanimous pick to win the league.
“New Mexico State has been a preseason Cinderella picked by many media outlets to be a dark horse come tournament time,” Hunsaker said. “There’s a number of other teams too that are very good so we’re really going to have to have a great consistency with our club and be prepared game in and game out. There’s a lot of diversity in the teams. We know it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
Clint Burgi is the assistant athletic director for sports information at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.