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.