Basketball season is upon us, and the Wolverines face the challenge of competing in previously unchartered waters as they set their focus on winning the WAC to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
With WAC membership also comes a connection to Las Vegas, where the league’s annual media day was held Oct. 15. Although UVU is one of six new teams to join the conference, the Wolverines were picked to finish fourth and along with New Mexico State, are the only team to have two of its players chosen to the preseason All-WAC teams.
“I don’t think I’ve ever coached a team that’s been picked (to finish fourth),” head coach Dick Hunsaker said. “We’ve either been low or high, and when you’re in the middle I guess you’re not too far from moving up to the top and you’re not too far from the bottom either.
“I think that’s a very fair assessment of our team, maybe even a little bit high. Holton and Ben, although they are very accomplished players, that’s really the crux of what we have returning. We have a lot of new players that are going to have to come in and play well to compete to attain that level. Any aspirations to move up and challenge for a league championship – we’re going to have to have outstanding play from newcomers.”
Ben Aird, who averaged 15.1 points per game, 9.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots on his way to being named to the final All-GWC first team last season, was recognized in both preseason polls as a first team All-WAC performer. Holton Hunsaker also joined Aird on the GWC first team at the conclusion of the 2012-13 campaign thanks to his 13.2 points per game and 3.1 assists. Hunsaker was honored on the preseason All-WAC second team.
“Holton has a great court leadership presence as far as directing a team,” Hunsaker said. “Ben is a very skilled, large low post player with a lot of savvy and a lot of experience. We’re going to build around them without question, but not without a lot of production and assistance from teammates and newcomers. We’re going to need them to compete successfully in the WAC.”
Keawe Enos and Taylor Brown are the only other players that are back from the team that went 14-18 last year before exiting the GWC tournament in the opening round.
Enos will likely join Hunsaker and Aird in the starting lineup this season after playing in 30 games and tallying seven starts in UVU’s ultimate slate of GWC competition. Enos scored in double figures in three of the Wolverines’ seven August games in China.
The remaining two slots of the first five Wolverines on the court are still in question, but it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that freshman forward Zach Nelson from Yuba City, Calif. and junior transfer Mitch Bruneel, who played his freshman season at Utah State, will occupy the starting power forward and small forward roles respectively.
“There better be more that play a big role than just those two or I’m going to be looking for a job at one of those dealer tables,” Hunsaker said at media day about the newcomers. “Mitch and Zach Nelson are both very versatile; a little bit more athletic than Holton or Ben, a little bit more diverse in their style of play, can do different things and actually compliment Ben and Holton a lot and play off them well. I do expect them to step in and be a large part of what we’re doing on the court this year.”
Bruneel reached double figures three times and Nelson accomplished the feat twice as both players hauled in a number of rebounds during the Wolverines’ summer contests overseas.
“When we went to China we weren’t really sure how many new players we were going to be able to take with us,” Hunsaker said. “We ended up taking six with us. That was a tremendous experience to be able to play the seven games against professional-level competition. Once I found out that was who we were going to be playing, with the inexperience of the group, I wasn’t really sure how we would fare, nor were we really a thick type of team. We didn’t have a lot of girth with us, but the kids played with a lot of heart and played well together with a little more fight than we had anticipated. It was really a fun experience and something that I think is going to benefit us throughout the season.”
The Wolverines’ bench may be the key to its success because of how unproven it currently sits. Junior transfer Chad Ross and sophomore transfer Hayes Garrity were also impressive in China. Ross recorded a double-double in a UVU win and reached double figures in points in another game. Garrity recorded a double-digit scoring performance once and had seven rebounds in a separate game for his personal tour-high.
Ross may indeed be the first forward off the bench if the starting lineup takes the aforementioned shape. The six-foot-seven native of Snellville, Ga. adds height to a team whose average size is six-foot-five.
Garrity will be battling for minutes at the guard position with Enos and senior Taylor Brown, who showed his three-point range in China.
Rounding out the roster are freshman forwards Marquis Salmon from Los Angeles, and Eli Robison, a product of Timpview High School in Provo.
One of last year’s key bench contributors, Antoine Hosley, left the team at the end of last season. The reasons behind his decision were unspecified and Coach Hunsaker would not comment on Hosley’s departure.
The Wolverines play four teams that competed in the NCAA tournament last March, which will be excellent opportunities to measure their ability to potentially qualify for the big dance.
UVU will hold Meet the Team Night Oct. 29 in the UCCU Center. The time of the event is still to be announced.