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.
“Here we’ve obviously learned we’re going to get on a plane and fly,’’ Hunsaker said. “Whether you go an hour on a plane, or two and a half hours on a plane or four hours on a plane, it’s not a big deal. We have played through that and we feel like the proximity of the new WAC is very tight-knit compared to the Great West.’’
The WAC, which is nothing like its original days with BYU and Utah, includes nine schools in nine different states. For Hunsaker, "tight-knit" means being able to travel to Moscow, Idaho, or Bakersfield, Calif., or Las Cruces, N.M., instead of Newark, N.J., or Grand Forks, N.D.
In the early days of their Division I transition period, the Wolverines had to find games wherever they could. It could mean playing back-to-back games against Indiana-Northwest or going to North Carolina to play Warren Wilson College or to Bethany College in California.
The latter was a game Hunsaker has never forgotten.
“The walls were about six inches from the baseline and I remember telling my team, ‘don’t go for loose balls.’ You almost had to turn sideways to throw the ball inbounds. But it was someone we had to play back then.’’
Another time, Hunsaker was playing a game in the Midwest and had to pay the officials. No, it’s not what you think.
“It was after we got home and I had to pay for the refs,’’ he said. “The school we played sent me a letter and I had to personally pay the athletic director so he could pay the refs.’’
Hunsaker credits his own former athletic director Mike Jacobsen for his commitment to the basketball program through its growing years.
“He made sure that we were treated right,’’ he said. “We’ve always traveled well.’’
Orem, Utah, isn’t exactly a place where top high school players are dying to play.
Hunsaker understands there’s a pecking order when it comes to recruiting and that his school probably ranks sixth among the six Division I schools in Utah. But thanks to his 37 years in the coaching business, Hunsaker has contacts all over the country and keeps a sharp eye out in his recruiting.
“We get players from wherever we have contacts — New York, Philadelphia, Florida, New Orleans, Georgia, everywhere,’’ he says. “We try to get kids that are the right fit. We look for kids that are hungry and developing. You have to keep digging and scratching.’’
One of Hunsaker’s first players was Ronnie Price, a Texan who transferred from Nicholls State in Hunsaker’s first year. By the time he was a senior, Price was third in the country in scoring at 24.3 ppg and later went to the NBA, where he has played the past nine years, including a four-year stint with the Utah Jazz.
Another top player was Ryan Toolson, who finished in 2008-09 when he ranked eighth in the nation in scoring and scored 63 points in a game, the most-ever by a Utah collegian.
“So many great players are developing,’’ he said. “Ronnie Price and Ryan Toolson weren’t scholarship players. They didn’t have other options. There are so many like that. But players develop.’’
While it’s a challenge to recruit four-star players, Hunsaker said it’s not hard to sell teenagers on Utah Valley.
“It may sound like a Chamber of Commerce speech, but it’s really a nice place,’’ he says. “People are nice, it’s clean, it’s a good environment for all kids. There are three things in recruiting — athletics, academics and social life — and at Utah Valley, we can sell all three things.’’
While he’s often had high-scoring stars like Price or Toolson, this year Hunsaker has a well-balanced group with five players averaging between 10.2 and 12.1 points per game.
Leading the way is Hunsaker’s son, Holton, a 6-foot senior, who besides scoring 12.1 points per game, leads the team in assists at 4.1. Ben Aird, a 6-9 senior, is a former all-stater from Bountiful High who averages 11.7 points and 7.8 rebounds, although in league play his numbers are 15.7 and 10.7.
Other starters are Zach Nelson, a 6-7 freshman from Yuba City, Calif., (10.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Mitch Bruneel, a 6-5 junior from Boise (10.2 ppg) and Keawe Enos, a 6-1 senior from Mesa, Ariz., (7.8 ppg), who is the team’s top 3-point shooter at 47.8 percent. Hayes Garrity, a 6-1 sophomore from Oregon, averages 10.8 points off the bench.
“This is a really unique group I have right now, absolutely a wonderful fit for Utah Valley,’’ he said. “They play hard, they play intelligently, they play together with all the core fundamentals and they believe in what we’re doing.’’
Coaching his son has turned out to be a great experience for Hunsaker, even though it was something he was wary of in the beginning.
“I never believed in coaching my kids. I never coached them in pee-wee ball or in any aspect,’’ he said. “It wasn’t an intended direction, it just kind of fell that way.’’
Out of high school, Holton had signed to play at Louisiana Tech under former Ute assistant Kerry Rupp before going on an LDS mission to Fiji. It was there that he changed his mind.
“Like most missionaries, you get a little homesick and I thought, ‘why can’t I go play for Dad,’ ’’ he said. “Just through letters, it probably softened his heart a little bit. It can be difficult and it’s a sensitive situation with other players. But it’s been a great experience because my teammates have been so good to me.’’
Holton said it helps that he’s married with a 6-month-old girl so he’s not talking hoops with his dad over the dinner table. “I can avoid him after a bad game,” he says with a laugh.
Despite its fast start in league play, it won’t be easy to win a WAC title and survive the three-day WAC tournament in Las Vegas in mid-March. But just the possibility of playing in the NCAAs for the first time ever is exciting for Utah Valley University.
“That’s definitely a goal of ours,’’ Aird said. “It’s our first year in the WAC and we have a great group of guys. It might be a cliché you hear a lot in sports, but we feel like we’re a family who work hard every day and love each other, and we feel like we can be successful together.’’
“We’re definitely off to a good start and we have a good chance if we keep playing how we’ve been playing,’’ added Bruneel.
Coach Hunsaker refuses talk about the possibilities of a league title or a berth in the NCAA tournament, even if his players do.
“All long-term goals are only achieved through the accomplishment of short-term goals,’’ he said. “Your short-term goal is the next game, the next practice and always will be.’’
When asked about the possibilities of winning the WAC or going to the NCAA tournament, Hunsaker won’t budge.
“We play the next game,’’ he says. “That’s all we ever do, that’s why we’ve enjoyed so much success here. We play the next game.’’
But obviously it would be a thrill to win the WAC title and go to the NCAAs?
“No, it’s the next game. It’s simple.’’
But you would be happy if you did get there, right coach?
“Come see me again in six weeks.’’
After waiting 12 years for a chance to get to the NCAA Tournament, Hunsaker and his Wolverines can certainly wait another six weeks.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company