OREM — When the Utah Valley men's basketball team took their home court on Tuesday night, it was just another preseason game.
But when the Wolverines host Chicago State less than a month from now, it will mark the first time that UVU is playing as part of a conference as a Division I program.
Head coach Dick Hunsaker has been at the helm of the UVU program from the beginning of the journey. Currently in his eighth year, Hunsaker was at the school before they became a Division I program. He then led them to rare success for a brand new Division I team four seasons ago.
In their first two years playing a Division I schedule, the Wolverines had back-to-back 16 win seasons. That feat represented only the third time from among 74 teams making the initial change to Division I play that a team has won at least 16 games.
In the 2007-08 season, the Wolverines went 22-7, which was the best record by a Division I independent team since Notre Dame went 23-6 under Digger Phelps during the 1985-86 season.
This season, UVU is part of the Great West Conference, which is made up of the Wolverines and six other programs making the leap to Division I. The Great West, which has existed for four years as a football-only conference, will now include — in addition to UVU and Chicago State — New Jersey Institute of Technology, Texas Pan-American, Houston Baptist, North Dakota and South Dakota.
"Right now it's still the preseason, but we're trying to sculpt our team for that conference schedule," Hunsaker said after the Wolverines' 78-58 victory over William Jessup (3-8), a win that evened UVU's record at 4-4. "It's good knowing that you have a conference schedule coming up, and it's kind of nice to develop an agenda in preparation for that."
On Tuesday, the Wolverines used a strong defensive effort in the second half to pull away from the Warriors. UVU's Jordan Swarbrick had a game-high 21 points, while teammate Justin Baker had 20 points and seven rebounds.
Jason Washington and Kadeem Kirsten each had 14 points to lead William Jessup.
Even though the Wolverines have made important steps — making the leap to a Division I program and now being part of a conference — it's still going to be a while until the conference earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Any Division I league must meet three main requirements for the conference's champion to earn that automatic bid to postseason play. The first — at least seven schools being fully-fledged members of Division I — is being met this season. But the other two criteria — at least seven "core" members have to be Division I for at least eight years and at least six "core" members must be in the league for five years — won't be met until the year 2020.
So, just as it's been a long trip for the Wolverines to get to this point, it will be an even longer one to have a chance at the "Big Dance."
But Hunsaker's philosophy, as described by UVU junior forward Justin Baker, should be a benefit to the Wolverines as they climb that mountain.
"Coach always tells us he'll never put us in a situation that we can't succeed in," he said.