It's been a long road for Utah Valley to the top of the WAC standings

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 29 2014 6:40 p.m. MST

Utah Valley University head coach Dick Hunsaker talks to his players following their 66-48 win over the University of Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014 at the UCCU Center in Orem.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

OREM — Back in those early days when Utah Valley State College was transitioning from a junior college basketball program to a Division I program, it was difficult for Dick Hunsaker to imagine that his team would ever have a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament.

While the dozens of schools that have moved up to Division I over the past couple of decades shifted from NCAA Division II or NAIA, Utah Valley was the first to go straight from junior college status to D-I back in 2003. The transition required a wait of six years in no man’s land before being able to join a conference and be eligible to compete for the NCAA Tournament and then another four years for a legitimate chance.

Utah Valley University joined the Great West Conference, which included teams in New Jersey, North Dakota and Texas — figure that one out — before getting its big break this past year when it was invited to join the Western Athletic Conference.

Although Utah Valley was technically eligible for the NCAAs the past four seasons, it was a virtual impossibility since the Great West didn’t have an automatic berth to the Big Dance. However, now that they’re in the WAC with its automatic berth, a postseason tournament victory in March would give the Wolverines their first-ever NCAA appearance.

It’s a long way away, but it isn’t far-fetched in the least. The Wolverines are off to a terrific start in the WAC at 6-0 with three road victories already and a two-game lead over three other schools. They are on a seven-game winning streak as they hit the road for games against Texas-Pan American Thursday night and preseason favorite New Mexico State Saturday.

It’s been a long road with many challenges, moving from a junior college to a Division I program, but Hunsaker has been patient over the past dozen years.

“It’s somewhat unique transforming a junior college to a Division I program, trying to develop a fan base with the shadow of Brigham Young University looking down University Parkway at you,’’ Hunsaker said. “But we’ve been able to develop some identity. Now we’re in the WAC, letting everyone know that Utah Valley is competitive.’’

Because the Jordan World Circus was setting up on the arena floor at the UCCU Center last week, the Utah Valley basketball team was forced to move its practice east across the walkway to the Physical Education Building.

There the Wolverines conducted practice on a court with a net separating students playing ball on the next court over. The door was open and students walking down the corridor from Taco Bell in the nearby food court could peek in and observe practice. During practice, some students even strolled along behind the west basket to get to the adjacent court.

“We don’t have a controlled environment, let’s put it that way,’’ Hunsaker says with a chuckle. “We find ourselves practicing in various places here. But I’m more than willing to give up the arena for a couple of days for the circus.’’

It’s a lot different from the days Hunsaker assisted at Utah when Rick Majerus locked all the doors to the arena to keep everyone out, including the media. Or even when he coached for four years at Ball State in the Mid-American Conference. It’s one of many things that are different at Utah Valley.

Back in the Ball State days, when Hunsaker took his team to the NCAA Sweet 16 in his first season, the Cardinals would bus to every arena in the league with games every Wednesday and Saturday. It hasn’t been that simple at UVU, which has always played as many road games as home games and traveled all over the country. And we mean ALL over the country.

In the past 11 years, the Wolverines have played 77 different schools on the road in 33 different states, from Maine to Florida to Washington and everywhere in between.

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