Success has this year’s basketball season nicely wrapped up waiting to be opened.
And the best presents are always the ones that are better than the year before-but that can leave a lot to live up to.
As is the case with the 2007-08 men’s basketball team after Chris Bailey, Peter Brown, David Heck, and Matt Peterson helped Utah Valley to the best Independent record (22-7) since Notre Dame (23-6) in 1986.
"We lost four experienced, veteran players that did the little things out on the court and had a maturity about them," Head Coach Dick Hunsaker said. "They are going to be missed."
That was last season, but it leaves the men’s basketball team with some high expectations once again.
Ryan Toolson, Jordan Brady, Josh Olsen, Joe Walker and
Richard Troyer all return after contributing significantly to last year’s team but all five players will play different roles this season.
Toolson showed his scoring ability in both of his prior seasons with Utah Valley but continues to work to get better.
"He [Toolson] has improved in every way," Hunsaker said. "He has more ways he can score […] but he is working on getting better defensively. He knows he needs to improve his defensive movement."
Troyer saw most of his minutes in 2006-07 as a power forward but is trying to make the move to small forward. The question becomes whether Troyer can defend quicker opponents at the position. He will be needed to fill some of the leadership role as a team captain also.
Brady and Walker give the team some important inside presence at both ends of the court and it showed in the first exhibition game. Olsen will have the opportunity to step into a bigger role as the point guard but something is missing.
So far, Hunsaker is looking for someone who can fill Heck’s shoes as a shutdown defender.
"Are there any candidates? That’s a great question," Hunsaker said. "I am searching for those candidates."
Center Brett Ravenberg also returns this season after seeing limited minutes a season ago but he has improved and could get more involved.
The bench play will have to come from among five freshmen and a junior college transfer. It leaves open the possibility for some of those new players to step into important roles.
Freshmen guard Kevin Woods could see a lot of action behind Olsen at the point.
Jordan Swarbrick will come in for some minutes at small forward and shooting guard.
"I’m not sure who’s going to emerge or how the newcomers are going to blend with the starters so we take it on a day-to-day basis," Hunsaker said.
The schedule is noticeably different from last year when Utah Valley participated in and won the United Basketball League. Big schools still aren’t knocking down the door but this schedule will provide Utah Valley with an opportunity to see where it is at compared to other so-called, mid-major schools.
"This year we’re playing half our games against Sun Belt, WAC, Big West, or West Coast Conference teams. That completely turns everything. We’re a start-up program.
"Are we going to be able to compete at the mid-major level for a season, half a season, with developed players, gotten-better players and with five freshman on our team?" Hunsaker said.
"This is a marked step up in competition for us."
Center Joe Walker believes the team is ready for the competition.
"It’s [the schedule] nothing we can’t handle," he said. "the coaches will have us ready and we will come out and play hard."
A win on the road against a Pac-10 team, an NBA player and nation’s leading free-throw shooter were all nice gifts from previous years, adding to this season’s expectations and anticipation.
The men’s basketball team has accomplished more than anyone could have imagined in the first four years of Division I competition. But Hunsaker doesn’t let his team think about what has happened.
We’ll really see what’s inside this team when the season opens Nov. 9 at Boise State and again on Nov. 20 for the home opener against Troy.