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Wolverines’ ‘toughest 24 hours in college basketball history’ a sign of UVU’s ambition.

By Layton Shumway | Photography by Jay Drowns

Utah Valley University men’s basketball coach Mark Pope does not believe in moral victories.

Last November, Pope sat in the media room at Rupp Arena, where, in 1996, he played on a University of Kentucky team that won an NCAA national championship. Minutes earlier, his Wolverines led the fifth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats by nine points at halftime, before eventually losing 73-63. The performance shocked the Kentucky faithful, and it made it easier to believe Pope when he explained that he did not schedule the toughest 24 hours in college basketball history just to lose, or to grab media attention, or to collect a paycheck. His goals run deeper than that.

“I’m not a big moral victory guy,” Pope says. “We’re trying to win. We understand this is hard. And we might be way ahead of ourselves thinking that we can roll into this great arena and play against this great team and win. But that’s what we think.”

In its 75-plus years of existence, UVU has made a name for itself by identifying the needs of its students and community and taking those challenges head-on. But the university’s explosive growth hasn’t always been reflected in its athletic programs. It takes more than just a boom in student enrollment to bring on-court success.

Pope’s solution: Act like you belong anyway — even if the scoreboard says differently. Because that experience will only make you stronger.

That’s what led Pope and the UVU men’s basketball program to schedule games at Kentucky and top-ranked Duke in back-to-back nights. And the team, the university, and its supporters will benefit from those “toughest 24 hours in college basketball history” for years to come. 

Toughest 24

Crooked-Path Guys

 For a team like UVU, from a relatively small conference like the Western Athletic Conference, this sort of scheduling is unthinkable. It’s common practice for larger programs to invite less-established teams to play early in the season; they’re even compensated financially for traveling. But it usually takes years of planning and relationship building. And to do it in back-to-back nights has literally never been done by a program UVU’s size.

Fortunately for the Wolverines, they had a couple of king-size, 6-foot-10 advantages in Pope and UVU assistant coach Chris Burgess, who played at Duke for two seasons. Their connections at their alma maters helped make the trip possible.

“If I would’ve even brought up a conversation like this two years ago, I’d have been thrown off campus,” UVU athletic director Vince Otoupal says. “This doesn’t happen. Nobody’s doing this. It takes someone like Coach Pope, that kind of creativity, to even think of it and to be able to execute it. [Kentucky head coach John] Calipari and Coach K [Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski], they don’t call third-year coaches back.”

Ever self-effacing, Pope admits the idea could have backfired spectacularly. But he says he believed in UVU and especially in his team.

“It takes a pretty moronic coach to think, ‘Hey, let’s go test ourselves this way,’ but this is where we’re trying to go, and we’re trying to go there fast,” Pope says. “And I have a lot of faith in my team, and I’m excited about what we have a chance to grow into.”

Part of the reason he has that much faith, Pope says, is because he knows what his players have already been through. Fourteen of the 16 players on this year’s men’s basketball roster have transferred from other programs, either at the junior college or university level. That includes eight players from other Utah institutions.

Pope calls them his “crooked-path guys.” And he says he knew games against opponents like Kentucky and Duke wouldn’t intimidate them.

“None of my guys are the chosen ones or the blue bloods,” Pope says. “That’s not who we are. We’re crooked-path guys with big-time chips on our shoulders. We’ve already been knocked down, and we got back up. At the end of the day, these guys are going to be champions, because they know how to get back up over and over again.” 

A Sense of Ownership

While the Wolverines prepared for the “#Toughest24” on the court, UVU staff and administrators worked to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience for donors and supporters of UVU athletics. With the encouragement and participation of UVU President Matthew S. Holland – himself a Duke graduate school alumnus – nearly 100 UVU supporters gave donations to the athletic program to help make the trip possible. In return, they received seats on the team’s chartered flight out of the Provo Airport, tickets to both games, hotel accommodations in Lexington, Ky., and Durham, N.C., and unique tours of the Kentucky and Duke basketball facilities.

And they made their presence felt, even in the cavernous Rupp Arena at Kentucky, which seats 23,500 people. During the first half of the UVU-Kentucky game, when the Wolverines sprang out to a surprising lead, multiple chants of “U-TAH VA-LLEY” rang through the stunned silence of the home fans.

 “Our donors are starting to feel like they’re part of it,” said Scott Cooksey, UVU vice president for development and alumni relations. “Instead of ‘the team at UVU,’ they’re starting to refer to it as ‘our team.’ And when we’re dealing with people who aren’t alumni, that’s a big change.”

Before President Holland led the supporters through a tour of the Duke Gardens prior to the basketball game, he invited former UVU President William A. Sederburg, who currently resides in North Carolina, to speak on the institution’s growth. Sederburg was instrumental, both as UVU president and later as commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, in leading UVU’s transition from a state college to a university.

“This kind of athletic development is so phenomenal,” Sederburg told the supporters. “I remember, when [former UVU athletic director] Mike Jacobsen came into the office and said, ‘We’re going to go from community college ball right to Division I,’ I thought the man was crazy. And now to be here at Duke, and to have played Kentucky so well, is phenomenal.”

The UVU party also got a taste of what coaches Pope and Burgess had meant to their respective universities. Kentucky fans greeted Pope so warmly as his name was announced in the arena that Wildcats coach John Calipari joked they must like Pope more than himself. One Kentucky fan at dinner the previous night told a story about seeing Pope near campus back in 1996 and being so star-struck that he could only think to blurt out, “You’re a great role model for kids!” as Pope drove past. And during pregame shootaround at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, former Blue Devil and NBA veteran Shane Battier came to visit his former teammate Burgess and chat with the UVU team.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever engaged donors this way,” Cooksey says, “giving them a first-hand experience, not just traveling with the team, but a whole weekend at two iconic basketball universities. No one’s done this before anywhere in the NCAA.” 


 While the UVU fans enjoyed the unique trip, the Wolverine players stayed focused on the games, which presented two different challenges. All five Kentucky starters were freshmen – just months removed from high school ball. Duke featured its own trio of talented freshmen, along with more experienced leaders like senior Grayson Allen. Kentucky’s Rupp Arena is overwhelmingly large, while Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium is one of the oldest and most compact in college basketball, with students close enough to touch opposing players. Both opposing coaches, Kentucky’s Calipari and Duke’s Krzyzewski, are legends.

But as Pope predicted, the Wolverines were not intimidated. Beyond a few cell phone videos and quietly awed comments as they entered the venues, the players were all business. And their preparation didn’t take long to pay off.

Against Kentucky, UVU took an early lead as Kentucky struggled to score. The Wildcats’ inexperience was evident as UVU outworked them on the offensive glass. Balanced scoring from the Wolverines’ Kenneth Ogbe and Jake Toolson helped UVU to a 34-25 halftime lead. Suddenly the impossible seemed within reach.

But the Wildcats adjusted, switching to a 2-3 zone defense that had UVU rattled. Unable to penetrate the zone, the Wolverines committed multiple turnovers, which led to lightning-quick Kentucky fast breaks. A mere five minutes into the second half, the Wildcats took a 43-37 lead, one they would never relinquish —although the Wolverines kept the final score close and the home fans uncomfortable to the end.

Less than an hour after the Kentucky game ended, the UVU team and traveling party were on a flight from Lexington to Raleigh, getting to bed in Durham well after midnight. The next day’s challenge would be even tougher.

The Wolverines started the game against Duke similarly, with excellent defense and timely rebounding. UVU led 17-15 with 11:38 left in the first half, and the “Cameron Crazies,” as Duke’s raucous student section is known, were making their displeasure felt.

But Duke’s superior execution began to take over. Having clearly watched the previous night’s game, the Blue Devils switched to a zone and let talented freshman big man Wendell Carter Jr. roam the paint at will on defense, racking up blocks. On the offensive side, freshman Marvin Bagley III was impossible to stop in the low post, and Duke’s shooters were far more accurate than Kentucky’s had been.

By halftime, Duke’s lead was 48-33, and the margin only grew from there. The lone bright spot for the Wolverines was senior center Akolda Manyang, who posted an impressive stat line of 17 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and one steal.

While Pope maintains he doesn’t believe in moral victories, and he was disappointed at the margin of defeat, he says he got what he was hoping for out of the toughest 24 hours in college basketball history.

“We wanted to go see what the best looked like and felt like, and we wanted to see it in a really concentrated period of time,” Pope says. “And I think we got a really good vision of that.”

The real measure of success, Pope says, is not just how his team performed on this trip, but how it will help them improve throughout the season. One of the most difficult things for teams like UVU is that, when they reach the NCAA Tournament in March, they are seeded against top-tier schools like Kentucky and Duke. That can become overwhelming quickly.

With the experience the Wolverines now have, Pope says, they will know exactly what it feels like to play that kind of game. And they’ll have the confidence to know they belong.

“I think we felt like we were able to stand toe-to-toe,” Pope says. “We have a very good understanding now of what these elite teams are like and what we want to work toward in the next five months. And I think all of our guys, deep in their core, believe that we can get there.”