These guys have been tested. I think they’re going in here No. 1 confident, No. 2 very much understanding that every game now you have to play your hardest, toughest most physical game of your lifetime to stay in it. —UVU coach Mark Pope
LAS VEGAS — In some ways, perhaps it’s appropriate that Utah Valley’s quarterfinal matchup in this year’s WAC men’s basketball tournament is CSU Bakersfield.
Last year, the No. 4-seeded Wolverines and top-seeded Roadrunners played an epic quadruple-overtime game in the WAC semifinals, with Bakersfield winning 81-80.
The situations are a bit different this year, though, as UVU comes in as the No. 2 seed in the WAC tournament, while the Roadrunners are the seventh seed.
Wolverines coach Mark Pope is expecting a tough challenge from Rod Barnes’ Bakersfield squad when the two teams meet Thursday (3:30 p.m. MST, ESPN3).
“When you get to the tournament, you just throw past records out the window. Go figure that it would be Bakersfield,” he said.
The Wolverines are 21-9 on the season, including a 15-1 mark at home while going 6-8 away from Orem. This will be their first neutral site game of the year.
“We just have to change our mindset,” UVU senior point guard Brandon Randolph said of playing in a neutral environment. “We’re going to have to rebound a little bit more, be physical a little bit more, protect the ball a little bit more than we would at home. We’re not going to have the fans at our side. That’s just how we’ve got to come into it, with that killer mentality.”
Pope has assembled a team this year that beat every WAC team at least once during the regular season while going 10-4 in league play. That includes beating WAC top team New Mexico State in Orem and beating CSU Bakersfield twice by an average of 28 points.
The Wolverines have six seniors on their roster, including wing Kenneth Ogbe, who leads the team in scoring at 13.4 points per game and was named to All-WAC first team, and center Akolda Manyang, who was named to the All-WAC defensive team while setting a school record with 62 blocks this season. Fellow senior Brandon Randolph, the team’s starting point guard, was named to the All-WAC second team along with junior Conner Toolson, while sophomore Jake Toolson earned WAC All-Newcomer honors.
“These guys have been tested. I think they’re going in here No. 1 confident, No. 2 very much understanding that every game now you have to play your hardest, toughest most physical game of your lifetime to stay in it,” Pope said.
CSU Bakersfield saw a drop in its record this season — the Roadrunners went 12-17 and 5-9 in league play during the regular season — but Bakersfield has been one of the WAC’s best the previous two years.
Last year, the Roadrunners won the conference regular-season title, finished second in the WAC tournament and made it all the way to the NIT Final Four. In 2016, CSU Bakersfield finished the regular season in third place in the conference and knocked off New Mexico State in the WAC tournament championship to earn the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance.
“They’re a tough team to play. (they’ve) made teams change their style of play. You’ve got to give them credit, but we’re going to be ready,” said UVU senior guard Kenneth Ogbe, who had 15 points in the four-overtime thriller last season. In that game, the Wolverines led the top seed Roadrunners by eight points late in regulation and had four chances to hit the game-winning shot before Bakersfield prevailed in the fourth overtime.
After starting off conference play with four straight losses this year, the Roadrunners are coming into the tournament playing better. During the final four games of the regular season, Bakersfield beat both Grand Canyon, the No. 3 seed, and No. 4 seed Seattle. Bakersfield center Moataz Aly was named to the All-WAC defensive team, while Damiyne Durham leads four players averaging double-figure scoring with 11.6 points per game.
“They’re the ones who’ve built this league the way it is the past couple years. We’ve got to put on our hard hats and go at it. That’s what it gonna be,” Pope said.
Three wins in three days in Las Vegas would give UVU its first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. The task at hand, though, is first focusing on beating Bakersfield.
“We’re not going to focus on anything further than the WAC tournament right now, nothing further than that first game against Bakersfield,” Ogbe said. “We’re going to take it game by game, play as hard as we can and see what happens.”