#rushthetrip Day 11 (Continued): Unlikely WAC Leaders Enjoying the RidePosted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 18th, 2014
RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.
No conference has been decimated by conference expansion like the WAC. Perennially one of the better mid-major conferences for much of the last two decades – even sending a team (Utah) to the national title game in 1998 – the current iteration probably looks nothing like how you remember it. Good luck figuring out who is in this new WAC, because only two schools have been conference members for more than a full season (New Mexico State and Idaho), and many of the newbies emphatically fail to fit the geographic profile of the conference. After beginning my Saturday with a signature member of WAC’s past (Utah State), the second half of the weekend two-fer had me paying a visit to the unlikely leader of this new and (un)improved league: Utah Valley University. I think my sanity might be called into question if I had any idea of what to expect out of the trip to Orem, so suffice it to say, I headed in there ready for anything.
What I got was a highly entertaining basketball game. There wasn’t much defense to be found (that’s usually what happens when teams ranked 210th and 304th nationally in defensive efficiency meet), but Utah Valley and Idaho submitted a tidy offensive display, combining to score 177 points on 58 percent shooting from the floor. The Vandals’ leading scorer, 6’5” forward Stephen Madison, poured in 42 points (16-of-21 FG), but UVU forced the ball out of the crafty senior’s hands on the game’s final possession, and two misses later, the Wolverines had escaped with a one-point victory. In doing so, Utah Valley hardly conjured up memories of ’98 Utah or ’04 Nevada, but at least for a few more days, the road to the WAC title still runs through Orem.
UVU only became a full D-I member in 2009, and this first year in the WAC marks their inaugural season as part of a conference with an auto-bid. Their current reign atop the league may have already prompted your head to explode, but if you are still here with me, the school may not be as unlikely a leader as we might have thought. The basketball program was extremely successful as a JuCo before it made the switch to Division I, and with the school now existing as the largest state university in Utah, it isn’t exactly on the verge of battling obscurity. Their home floor, the 8,500 seat UCCU Center, may have fairly been accused of resembling a “prison” by a group of kids entering the building alongside me, but the facility would qualify as pretty respectable digs for most mid-major programs. To be clear, I am not touting UVU as the next Butler, but the program has more going for it than a lot of lower-tier D-I schools do. And sadly, this WAC is very much lower tier.
Despite currently sitting behind Utah Valley in the standings, I would be shocked if New Mexico State didn’t earn the WAC’s automatic bid in a few weeks. They significantly outpace all their conference mates in both offensive and defensive efficiency; they are the only WAC team in KenPom’s top-200 (#80); and they thrashed Utah Valley in Las Cruces a few weeks back. I would love to know how they have already lost three conference games. That said, enter a conference tournament with the top seed, and you clearly have a shot to win the thing. Utah Valley has plenty of work left to do to earn the WAC’s regular season title (for starters, there’s that February 27 rematch with the Aggies), but for now, the Wolverines hold pole position. And while my experience Saturday night could lead me to sit here and report back on just how terrible the WAC has become, I’d prefer to tell you about an unexpected conference leader thoroughly enjoying its first real trip through Division I hoops. Down here, seeding considerations may only pertain to the conference tournament, and RPI is but three middle-of-the-alphabet letters, but Utah Valley is a part of college basketball just as much as Syracuse, Duke or Kansas. UVU may or may not join those titans in the NCAA Tournament this season, but whether they get there or not, the Wolverines are quite certainly enjoying this unlikeliest of marches toward the Big Dance.