OREM — Entering his third season as head coach of the Utah Valley University men's basketball program, Mark Pope has something at his disposal that hasn't been seen in some time in Orem.
The Wolverines have size and a lot of it. UVU returns All-WAC defender Isaac Neilson, who stands 6-foot-11, to go along with Oklahoma transfer Akolda Manyang, who is 7 feet tall.
Add in 6-foot-11 freshman Richard Harward, who could redshirt this season, and UVU is loaded at the center position.
"We're big and we're fast," Pope said. "Isaac and AK were both around a five-minute mile in our last conditioning test. Richard Harward has been terrific as a freshman who just got off a mission mid-August … if you look at us at that five spot, we're deep. We're athletic. They're veteran guys … they're going to be really good."
In his junior campaign, Neilson averaged just under a double-double per game with 9.6 points and 9.1 rebounds. He was also second in the WAC in blocked shots with 54.
"I think with AK and I, in the hole just protecting the paint will definitely deter a lot of people from wanting to come in there," Neilson said. "AK is huge. Very athletic. So he will be a good deterrent for the other team down there."
Manyang transferred to UVU after being dismissed from Oklahoma following the 2015-16 season. The big 7-footer from the Sudan averaged 2.5 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.36 blocks while playing just eight minutes per game while at Oklahoma.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," Neilson said. "I'm extremely excited to see how AK performs this year. He's going to be a tremendous help to all of us."
Veteran guard Brandon Randolph understands the importance of the big men in the middle and knows that Neilson and Manyang will play a huge part in the success of the Wolverines.
"It's going to be really, really fun," Randolph said. "It's going to be a lot of lobs this year. A lot of fast pace, more lobs, blocked shots. It's really going to take the toll off of a lot of the guards. We had a hard time guarding ball screens, so everything is going to be protected down there. Our defense is going to be a lot better."
Randolph is the senior leader over a position group that has as much depth, if not more, than the big men for UVU. Fellow senior Kenneth Ogbe, along with juniors Conner Toolson and Hayden Schenck, all return. Former BYU guards Cory Calvert and Jake Toolson, along with Kent State transfer Jerrelle DeBerry and junior college transfer Ben Nakwaasah, are all in line for minutes on the UVU guard line.
"I certainly think we have our returning guys," Pope said. "We have Brandon and Hayden and Conner and KO (Ogbe). I think that's going to be the foundation. But this Jake Toolson is special. Cory Calvert shows us flashes. Ben Nakwaasah was the sixth leading scorer in junior college last year. He's a veteran player."
Senior forward Zach Nelson rounds out the list of returnees who saw a lot of minutes in 2016-17. Although Pope says Nelson "is the oldest player in college basketball," the 6-foot-8 senior, who graduated in August with a master's degree along with teammate Kenneth Ogbe, will be expected to provide that veteran leadership.
UVU opens the season with an exhibition game against Dixie State in the UCCU Center in Orem before heading east for the toughest 24 hours in college basketball history. UVU plays at Kentucky on Nov. 10 and one night later plays at Duke in what could be the 1,000th win at Duke for Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Either way, Pope believes his guys can and will compete at the highest levels and is excited for the opportunity to watch his guys take the court again.
"One of the fun things about this schedule is that there is no doubt," Pope said. "Our guys wake up every morning a little more anxious and they go to bed at night a little more anxious. We're playing a ridiculously hard non-conference schedule."
Kyle McDonald is sports fan who loves the Chicago Cubs. Follow him on Twitter at @kylesportsbias
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