He’s uniquely long and athletic but strong enough to play against undersized guys in the post. —UVU coach Mark Pope
OREM — Utah Valley University guard Conner Toolson calls him “a beast down low.” Wolverines forward Zach Nelson said he’s “a game-changer for us inside.”
Whether its blocking shots on one end or slamming home an alley-oop on the other, UVU is expecting a lot this season out of its new center, Oklahoma transfer Akolda Manyang.
The 7-foot, 243-pounder who teammates call AK will play his first regular-season game in a Wolverines uniform on Friday, when UVU opens the year at No. 4 Kentucky. The next night, the Wolverines play at top-ranked Duke.
It’s an exciting first test for the transfer from Big 12 country.
“That’s going to be our biggest challenge and that’s the two games I am really looking forward to,” Manyang said.
The redshirt senior is listed as the team’s projected starter at center heading into the weekend trip to iconic college basketball venues Rupp Arena and Cameron Indoor Stadium. Last week, UVU fans got their first glimpse of the kind of impact Manyang can have in the post for a Wolverines team looking to build upon a 17-17 record last year that included a run to the College Basketball Invitational semifinals in postseason play.
In an 81-70 win against Division II Dixie State in UVU’s lone exhibition game on Nov. 1, Manyang led the team with 19 points and 10 rebounds while adding three blocks, a steal and an assist. He shot 6 of 10 from the field, including several dunks, and made 7 of 10 free throws.
“He’s a special talent. He’s got the chance to be a really, really good player,” UVU coach Mark Pope said. “He’s uniquely long and athletic, but strong enough to play against undersized guys in the post.”
In his one season at Oklahoma in 2015-16, Manyang had 34 blocks in 200 minutes played over 25 games. That equates to 6.8 blocks per-40-minute average on a Sooners team that reached the Final Four that year.
Against Dixie State, Manyang showed off that blocking ability, collecting all three of his blocks in the second half after playing limited minutes in the opening half because of foul trouble.
“He’s always active, always talking. He changes a whole lot of shots,” said UVU point guard Brandon Randolph. “His presence on the floor is really known. He’s a great defensive player.”
During one particular stretch against Dixie State, Manyang scored on a slam dunk in transition off an assist from guard Ben Nakwassah, then blocked a shot on the other end. Following an empty possession by both teams, he slammed down another alley-oop on a fast break, this time from Randolph, to extend the UVU lead to 13 points.
“I’m a really easy target to find, and my teammates just love throwing the ball to me,” Manyang said.
That stretch was part of an 18-2 run by the Wolverines. Manyang had 11 points, six rebounds, including two on the offensive end, and two blocks during the run.
“He’s made my job easier, just being a point guard,” Randolph said.
The level of competition Manyang will face elevates significantly this weekend when the Wolverines play college basketball powerhouses Kentucky and Duke, both full of young talent in the frontcourt.
The Wolverines may also be limited at the four spot against the Wildcats and Blue Devils, with Kenneth Ogbe and Nelson both recovering from injuries. Both sat out the exhibition against Dixie State, and any limitations for them against the the pair of top-ranked teams will likely increase the impact needed from Manyang and the other interior players.
One benefit the Wolverines are hoping to take advantage of with Manyang this season is teaming him with 6-11 forward Isaac Neilson, the former BYU transfer who was named a preseason All-WAC honoree. Manyang is looking forward to working with Neilson inside.
“Say if I miss a layup or something, he’s going to clean it up and it’s going to be the same thing the other way around. Being able to have two bigs at the same time takes a lot of pressure off of me, because if they double-team me, I can just find Isaac,” Manyang said.
The lengthy center — who started his college career with two years at Indian Hills Community College — hasn’t played in a regular-season NCAA game since March 2015, when the Sooners beat Cal-State Bakersfield in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. Manyang said he’s worked on being patient and getting in game shape as he’s been forced to wait to get back on the court in a game.
“Practice and game shape is two different things,” he said.
Still, having Manyang around UVU during the past year during his redshirt season has been a benefit, for both the player and the program. Toolson pointed to the fact that Manyang, as well as three other transfers eligible to play this season, had the opportunity to practice with the team and fully understand the system as a reason to believe they will have an immediate impact this year.
“They know how it works,” Toolson said.