The WAC is going in the right direction. We’ve got some really good coaches; we’ve been getting some really good players. —Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle
LAS VEGAS — Always one to provide an infectious, competitive vibe, a notably quieter Mark Pope pulled his chair up to the press conference table Friday night following Utah Valley’s 75-60 loss to Grand Canyon in the WAC tournament semifinals.
“As a coach, you always have a plan for everything. Except for this. Congratulations to Grand Canyon,” the coach stated simply.
The hurt could be seen in his face, the pain apparent in his lowered voice. UVU, with six seniors on its roster, had fallen short two wins short of its goal to earn the WAC tournament’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
UVU shot just 35.5 percent and hit only 3 of 19 3-pointers. While the Wolverines forced Grand Canyon into mistakes, including 15 turnovers, they did not capitalize on those opportunities throughout the night.
“This game can be so unkind at times, because sometimes it just doesn’t tell the story about your guys. Sometimes it doesn’t tell the story right. I would certainly say that’s the case tonight,” Pope said.
What does Friday’s result mean for UVU’s national postseason play chances? Within the next 48 hours, UVU will find out.
When they do, the Wolverines (22-10), who finished second in the WAC during the regular season with a 10-4 league mark, will likely have the opportunity to establish a single-season program record with one more win. They tied the school record, set in 2006-07, for single-season victories with an 81-74 win over CSU-Bakersfield in the WAC tournament quarterfinals.
Last year, there was uncertainty if UVU would be headed to national postseason play, but this year the Wolverines appear certain to earn an invitation. One day before Selection Sunday, UVU is No. 83 in the RPI rankings, No. 91 in the Ken Pomeroy rankings and No. 92 in ESPN’s BPI.
In the latest NIT bracketology from NYC Buckets, UVU is not predicted to make the NIT field, a long shot at this point considering the number of automatic bids that are already assured NIT slots. The Wolverines do, however, show up on NYC Bucket’s list of other teams strongly considered for the NIT field.
UVU is most likely to land in either the College Basketball Invitational or the College Insider.com Tournament.
Last year, the Wolverines were invited to the CBI and beat both Georgia Southern and Rice on the road before falling to eventual CBI champion Wyoming in Laramie in the tournament semifinals.
Fellow WAC school Seattle, not long after its 84-79 loss to New Mexico State in the other league tournament semifinal, announced on Twitter it was headed to the CBI.
New Mexico State, the league’s regular-season champion, won the WAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by beating Grand Canyon 72-68 in Saturday's tournament championship. The Lopes are also a strong candidate for national postseason play.
“The WAC is going in the right direction. We’ve got some really good coaches; we’ve been getting some really good players,” Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle said.
“You look at New Mexico State and the way they play and the wins they have, Utah Valley and the way they’ve done. And the wins we’ve got in the four to five years of the transition period (to Division I). Then coach (Jim) Hayford at Seattle, the differences he’s made. You’re seeing the WAC really start to get a lot better.”
During a stretch in the second half against Grand Canyon, when the Wolverines used a 16-3 run to fight their way back into the game, UVU looked like it has through much of the year.
Seniors Akolda Manyang and Kenneth Ogbe, in particular, made key plays in the second half to help get the Wolverines back in the game, cutting the deficit to 51-47, before Grand Canyon regained control and pulled away in the final minutes.
“We weren’t shooting the ball well, and it was hard to get downhill with them switching. We starting trying to attack from the interior,” Pope said. We emptied out the weak side in the second half and (Manyang) is a force in there. Kenneth made some unbelievable plays. He’s one of the best guys I’ve seen in college basketball at going downhill and being able to change direction to finish.”
That’s what the Wolverines will hope to play like again when they learn their national postseason fate.
“We’ve just got to go watch film, learn from our mistakes,” Manyang said.