Photo by Mykah Heaton

Head coach Mark Pope has put together an intriguing group for the 2017-18 men’s basketball season. The team that fell one point short of advancing to the WAC Tournament championship game last season has largely returned. In addition to an experienced group of players returning, Pope has acquired several transfers who should make a big impact on the court.

UVU has been guard heavy in the first two seasons of Pope’s tenure. A strong back court has given the Wolverines an ability to light up the scoreboard from beyond the arc when they’re hot, but it has also exposed limited offensive production down low when the shots aren’t falling.

One weakness has been filled with the addition of senior Akolda Manyang, a transfer from Oklahoma. Manyang, who is a 7-footer, has long arms and brings much-needed athleticism to the UVU front court. Not only will Manyang’s presence take pressure off the guards on offense with another scoring threat down low, including more lob pass opportunities, he will be able to protect the rim on defense. Isaac Neilson, the 6-11 forward, stands to benefit greatly from Manyang’s defensive prowess.

Akolda Manyang (0) dunks over Dixie State’s Austin Montgomery (50) in an exhibition game Nov. 1

“There’s so much that can happen for us this season. … We have a lot more depth this year,” Neilson said. “We’re going to do great things because of [Manyang].”

“Our defense is going to be a lot better,” senior guard Brandon Randolph said. “Our guards could guard [last year], but we were limited down there.”

The Wolverines lost seniors Ivory Young, Jordan Poydras and Andrew Bastien to graduation last season. Freshman Jared Stutzman, who transferred to Idaho State, will also be missed. Poydras became a lock-down defender last season who Pope came to depend on and Stutzman hit some clutch shots down the stretch for UVU. Jake Toolson and Cory Calvert, incoming transfers from nearby BYU, should be upgrades on both ends of the floor, though.

The added depth took on even more meaning after junior guard Hayden Schenck went down with a torn patellar tendon in the exhibition game against Dixie State Wednesday. He will likely miss the season recovering from the injury.

With so many close games lost in the closing seconds last season amid miscommunications or other dysfunction, the team sought a solution in the offseason. Randolph said the team stayed in Orem through the summer in order to bond and get more hours in training together.

“Coach is doing a really good job rallying us all together,” Neilson said. “And everyone is talking with one another to make sure we’re all on the same page, ready to work together.”

“Our team has gotten a lot better, just experience wise, knowing how to play with each other,” Randolph said. “We really bonded with each other not just on the court but off the court. I think a lot of the mental lapses we had last year we worked on in practice. We worked on them together as a team off the court and on the court just getting to know one another.”

Ten players on this year’s roster are juniors or seniors and many of them now have experience playing against WAC opponents. That added level of comfort should help the Wolverines finish with a better record in conference play than last year when they finished with a dismal 6-8 record and a fifth-place finish.

UVU opens the season Nov. 10 in Lexington, Ky., to face the No. 4-ranked Kentucky Wildcats with tipoff set for 5 p.m. MDT.