SALT LAKE CITY — Arranging back-to-back road games at Kentucky and Duke is a gigantic scheduling coup for Utah Valley University’s men’s basketball team.
“Honestly,” says UVU coach Mark Pope, “it’s not that hard. Nobody wants to go play there. I don’t think Kentucky has lost a home opener there since before Moses.”
Friday the Wolverines play the No. 5-ranked Wildcats, followed by a Saturday game at No. 1 Duke.
What, the Golden State Warriors were unavailable?
Between them, the aristocratic programs have been to 33 Final Fours.
Rupp Arena and Cameron Indoor Stadium are as accommodating to outsiders as North Korea.
“It takes a pretty immature or un-savvy coach to want to take that on,” says Pope.
That’s him, Mr. Head-in-the-Clouds. Or maybe it takes a coach with a bold and brilliant plan, i.e. give his team a taste, in hopes it will pay dividends in March. While many coaches schedule as little non-conference trouble as possible, Pope believes small teams benefit from taking on giants and taking their lumps.
“I think we want to stay in that realm,” he says.
Pope is unapologetic about his goal to win the Western Athletic Conference tournament and advance to the NCAA tourney. Last year his team got as far as the semifinals before losing in overtime to Cal State Bakersfield. New Mexico State claimed the automatic berth.
Duke fans cheer prior to the team's game against North Carolina in Durham, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. | Gerry Broome, Associated Press
Thinking big isn’t unusual at the Orem campus. Five years ago, UVU was playing in a far-flung, nondescript conference — the Great West — that has since been disbanded. Pope’s thinking is that if the Wolverines do make the NCAA Tournament, they’ll be a 15 or 16 seed and playing someone like Kentucky or Duke, anyway.
Why not get a sneak peek in November?
“I like the idea of going there and seeing how far we have to go in five months, and finding out what it takes to get there,” he says.
Pope knows all about what it takes. He played two years at Washington before transferring to Kentucky, where he was on the 1996 national championship team. After that came a seven-year career in the NBA, with stops at Indiana, Milwaukee and Denver. Although he has run with the big dogs, Pope likes his place and his players.
“None of them,” he says, “has taken a straight line into a college basketball career, where everything went right.”
Thirteen of 16 players listed on this year’s roster started at other schools, including BYU, Oklahoma, Utah and Xavier.
“My team is made up of guys that have had hard times, suffered through failure, made poor decisions, or were maybe mistreated or undervalued,” Pope says.
But that’s why he has confidence his team will survive, whatever the outcome this week.
“Does that mean I’m not scared? No. I’m terrified,” he says.
In Pope’s first season at UVU, the Wolverines went 12-18. One of the losses was a 30-point humiliation at Louisville. They also lost by 31 at BYU and 26 at Utah State. But last year they improved to 17-17. A 23-point loss to No. 14 Gonzaga gave way to encouraging seven-point losses to Utah and Washington State. Meanwhile, they pulled off a historic 13-point win at BYU.
If Pope sounds like a standard motivational speaker, it’s understandable. That’s part of a coach’s job. But he also speaks honestly. He says there’s “a hundred percent chance” his team could get trampled beyond recovery against the Blue Devils and Wildcats.
“I don’t know how much of a payoff we’ll see this weekend,” he says. “And I don’t really care. It helps us get where we want to go. And where we want to go is to play these teams in March.”
That’s a prospect that’s keeping him up at night.
And he’s loving it.
“I can take this, man,” he says, his voice rising. “The fact I can’t sleep any more for the next five months, I dig it, actually — the fact that I’m terrified.”
This is why smaller college basketball exists. Dream big. Live large. Get scared. Enjoy the ride.