Tim Castaneda, Sports Writer, @xTIMBOxSLICEx
It’s been a rough up-and-down ride for the Utah Valley men’s basketball team this 2014-2015 season.
For a team one year removed from losing key players to graduation, a Western Athletic Conference regular-season title and UVU’s first-ever appearance in the NIT men’s basketball tournament, a No. 4 WAC finish would have been just fine, as projected in preseason polls.
The Wolverines currently sit in sixth place in the WAC at 10-18 with four wins and nine losses in conference play before closing out the season at home against CSU-Bakersfield on Saturday, March 7. However, no matter how many games under .500 their record may show, it is not an indicator of the fight and hard work the team has put forth in its tough schedule on the year.
The Wolverines have faced stiff competition this year, as the top five teams in the WAC have a combined record of 41-24 and the second through fifth place teams are separated by just one game. Pair that with a couple matchups against Arkansas of the Southeastern Conference, and No. 7 in the nation Arizona, and you may see the reason for a sub-.500 record.
“It’s been a very trying schedule for us this year,” said UVU head coach Dick Hunsaker. “I give the kids a lot of credit. I think they’ve kept their heads up, they’ve fought hard and really worked hard.”
Despite all they have been through, collectively, with the upcoming WAC men’s basketball tournament taking place from March 12-14 in Las Vegas, Nev., the Wolverines still have a shot at a WAC championship.
Although the Wolverines’ record includes victories against only three WAC teams in Chicago State, Seattle and Texas-Pan American, the team still believes it can compete with other five teams in the conference.
“We have a pretty different team compared to last year. One thing that coach said in the locker room was that ‘there’s no team that can’t beat us, but there’s also no team that we can’t beat,” said UVU senior forward Mitch Bruneel. “If we play our game, and we focus, there’s no team we can’t beat in the WAC tournament and I think that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
Ahead of the final game against Bakersfield at home, Bruneel, who leads the team in scoring and rebounds averaging 12 points and six rebounds, hopes to provide his team a lift in his last collegiate home game, as the Wolverines look to improve their play in preparation for tournament action.
“I hope just to play as hard as I can, do what I can to help the team and just leave it all out there,” said Bruneel. “We’re fine tuning all aspects of the game, just getting ready for the WAC tournament, offensively and defensively, and making sure that we can gain some momentum as we go into the tournament.”
It is going to take a lot on the offensive, as well as defensive, end of the court for the team to pull off a run to the WAC championship and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve learned that we’ve got to execute a little better offensively, be just a little stiffer defensively and keep playing together,” said coach Hunsaker ahead of the team’s final game of the regular season. “We need to really put a complete game together on both ends of the court, offensively and defensively, and work hard on special teams, as far as handling the press and out-of-bounds plays and other various things. That’s going to be the most important thing that we do heading into the conference tournament.”
The Wolverines defense gives the team a shot at keeping the games within striking distance against when facing their opponents and holding them to low-scoring finishes. In the WAC, they rank fourth place in both scoring defense, allowing 64.2 points per game, and opponent field-goal percentage, holding opponents to 43.2 percent shooting on the year.
The biggest challenge for the Wolverines face is on the offensive end. They currently rank seventh in scoring, averaging 58.7 points per game compared to 68.7 for first-ranked New Mexico State, in the WAC. Also, the team ranks seventh in the WAC in field-goal percentage at 40.2 percent and dead last in 3-point shooting at 22.8 percent.
As Bruneel puts it, the success of the team depends on contributions from every player on the Wolverines’ lineup in order for them overcome the team’s offensive struggles and advance in the tournament.
“We just have to play together. Obviously, we need to defend them. Then, we also need to score the ball,” he said. “I think it’s going to take every person on the team. It’s not just going to be the five starters, or the sixth man. It’s going to take the whole team’s effort, and, if we do that, that will give us a pretty good shot.”
If the team hopes to get contributions from every one of its players, it may look toward point guard Marcel Davis to get everyone involved on the court. Davis leads all WAC players with an average of 4.1 assists per game, while also leading his team to a fourth-place conference ranking with 13 assists per game. He also averages over eight points per game, three rebounds and nearly one steal per game.
Other key contributors on the roster include forward Zach Nelson and Donte Williams, who rank second and third on the team in scoring. Nelson averages 10.3 points, while Williams averages 10.1 points per game. Nelson, the sophomore forward, also holds averages of six rebounds, two assists and one block per game.
For UVU men’s basketball, the team needs a full team effort, as well as consistent scoring and lock-down defense, in order to return to Orem from its trip to Vegas with a WAC Tournament championship trophy.