OREM — Utah Valley coach Mark Pope knows it, and he even prides himself on it.
The Wolverines are becoming Second Chance U.
With a 2017-18 season where 14 of 16 players on the Wolverines’ roster started their career at a different school — with BYU transfers Isaac Neilson, Cory Calvert and Jake Toolson among them — Utah Valley will enter the college basketball season as one of the oldest teams in the nation.
Consider a few numbers.
Eight players have used redshirt seasons in the past, primarily while waiting to gain eligibility following stops at BYU, Xavier, Utah, Eastern Michigan or Oklahoma, in the case of 7-foot center Akolda Manyang.
“That sit-out year was really long. But now that the year is here, I’m excited to play," said Manyang, who hails from Rochester, Minnesota. “Practices were like games to me. I couldn’t play, so I just went hard in practice to try to make everybody better.”
The roster has four seniors and a graduate senior, which lends toward experience. But only 6-foot-8 forward Zach Nelson began his career at UVU.
Even the underclassmen are older, it seems. Former Orem High center Richard Harward is the only true freshman on the squad — but he’s recently returned from a two-year mission for the LDS Church in Australia.
If there’s an older roster in the NCAA, Pope wants to meet it. BYU comes to mind, with an annual influx of returning missionaries. But even the Cougars are without a single senior on the roster, and just six juniors.
“I like having an old team; it’s really good for us,” Pope said during the team’s annual media day Tuesday. “We talk about this being Second Chance U. all the time — and I say that in the most positive sense. I love these guys. Everybody has taken a crooked path here, and they come here with stuff — a chip on their shoulder, something to prove, an entourage of doubters. I like that locker room, and I like how it feels.”
The crooked paths are all different, but each have one commonality, former BYU forward Isaac Neilson said. A staff that includes national championship-winning Pope and former Utah standout Chris Burgess — not to mention a sparkling, 14,500-square foot practice facility on campus — has the Wolverines juicing for more wins.
“The common goal is to win,” he quipped, “and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Winning isn’t always per-usual in Orem, though. The school is 812-549 all-time, with a 234-187 record in the 13 years since jumping from junior college to the Division I ranks.
Pope has designs to change that; it’s why he left a comfortable job as BYU coach Dave Rose’s top assistant for the startup mentality on the other end of University Parkway.
Pope thinks he can win at Utah Valley and the Western Athletic Conference. His players are out to prove it.
“We’re just going to play hard, as hard as we can, and go as far as we can,” said Kenneth Ogbe, a former Utah wing who finished his MBA program in August and has one final season of eligibility. “Our dream is to go to the NCAA Tournament. That’s our dream, and that’s what we are going to work toward.”
Utah Valley opens the season Nov. 10 with back-to-back games at Kentucky and Duke. The Wolverines face UC Davis in the scheduled home opener Nov. 18.
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