Wolverines coming together as conference play begins
All that preseason hype may simply have been premature.
The Wolverines’ early-season struggles gave way to a three-game winning streak heading into the weekend’s conference opener at North Dakota. Team chemistry and overall production highlight the change in fortune, something onlookers thought would take place sooner with four returning starters from last season’s Great West championship squad.
Head coach Dick Hunsaker did his best to quash the preseason praise. He pointed to the since-departed Jordan Swarbrick and Justin Baker as key losses that would be felt far beyond the box score.
It was tempting to think that Dick was simply being Dick. Hunsaker is a coach who wants his players to be aware of their flaws enough to be accountable for them, change them, eradicate them.
Instead the non-conference slate proved the 11th-year coach right and fans/writers hasty, if not necessarily wrong. Losses to high-profile programs (Arkansas, Wyoming, Oakland) served as reality checks. Returning All-American Isiah Williams and second-team All-GWC center Ben Aird saw their production drop.
The Wolverines’ Jan. 3 rematch against Wyoming punctuated the low point of the season. In front of a home crowd of 6,000-plus and a national television audience, UVU came up short after Keith Thompson’s go-ahead basket in the closing seconds was waved off for an offensive foul. Wyoming went on to win 76-70.
The call infuriated Hunsaker. The loss may have ignited the team.
It didn’t hurt that UVU’s next opponent was Seattle University, the program chosen over Utah Valley for admittance to the Western Athletic Conferene (WAC) last summer.
Utah Valley played them twice, winning both times. In the Wyoming and Seattle games, Williams regained his All-American form, averaging over 23 points in the three contests. The Wolverines followed their second victory at Seattle with a 98-72 home blowout over Saint Mary. Six players scored in double-figures for the second game in a row, led by Ben Aird’s 18 points. Sophomore guard Holton Hunsaker logged a career-high nine assists, his third consecutive game with at least six after averaging less than three per game on the season.
“I like the direction we’re headed,” Hunsaker said. “It’s taken a lot of time to get a definition of roles. I still think we have a substantial distance to go with to get better with our overall ball movement offensively, but we are a team that’s headed into the right direction for the last six or seven games.”
Coaches picked Utah Valley as the preseason favorite to win the Great West crown after the Wolverines went 10-2 in conference play last season. The two losses came against South Dakota, which has since left the Great West for the Summit League. Utah Valley boasted the conference’s leading rebounder in Geddes Robinson (10.1rpg) and second-leading scorer in Williams (15.0ppg).
Holton Hunsaker, however, was adamant that the team respects its competition despite Utah Valley’s athletic programs habitual dominance in conference play.
“I think we’re going to have to be ready as far as we can’t think that conference play is going to be easier than what we’ve been doing now,” Hunsaker said. “We played them all last year twice, so they know what we do…I think just the opposite. It’s only going to get harder.
Matt Petersen – Sports Editor