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OREM — On Monday, UVU head coach Mark Pope made it clear that the Wolverines' announcement of a game at Kentucky to open the 2017-18 season was just half of the program's big news.On Thursday morning, he completed the other half, announcing that Utah Valley will play at historic Cameron Indoor Stadium the following night against powerhouse Duke in what is considered by many as the toughest 24 hours in NCAA basketball history.
"It's a huge challenge," Pope said. "My guys have known for a couple of days and I don't think they're sleeping real well right now. One of the best parts of this is that we get to be on edge all summer and these guys have a very clear picture of what they're working for at the beginning of the season next year."
UVU opens the season at Kentucky on Nov. 10 and then immediately goes to Durham to take on the Blue Devils on Nov. 11. Kentucky advanced to the Elite Eight in the 2017 NCAA Tournament before losing to eventual national champion North Carolina, 75-73.Duke is coming off a 28-9 season, which included an ACC tournament crown and No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Devils lost to South Carolina in the round of 32.
"We didn't take this scheduling decision lightly," Pope said. "The overriding factor for us is that this is just what basketball is supposed to be. Let's go play. Let's not hide. I don't want to manage my schedule. I want to go play and go win and that's how my guys feel and that's how we're trying to build this program."
If that is what Pope is trying to do, it may be a tall task to ask his squad. According to scout.com, Kentucky and Duke have the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked recruiting classes for 2017. Neither team has a great deal of returners as Kentucky returns wingman Hamidou Diallo, who opted out of the NBA draft, and Wenyen Gabriel. Grayson Allen is the lone returner with significant experience for Duke.
"We're not scared," Pope said. "We're not. I'm not trying to protect my legacy. We're trying to go play. We're trying to become the best. I think this is going to help us do it.
"There’s a lot of reasons why not to do this. But, at the end of the day, none of those rang true to who I am today or what this program is, so it’s on. It’s going to be awesome."UVU returns eight players who saw significant minutes in 2016-17, including leading scorer Conner Toolson, who averaged over 11 points per game. Returning post Isaac Neilson, who earned WAC All-Defensive team honors, led UVU with 9.1 boards and 1.6 blocks per game.
Pope will add 7-footer Akolda Manyang to his roster. Manyang transferred from Oklahoma and sat out the 2016-17 season. Junior college transfer Benjamin Nakwaasah and BYU transfers Jake Toolson and Cory Calvert will also be in the mix for significant playing time on a team that finished 17-17 overall a season ago.
"If you’re any type of basketball fan in the world, and you know in 24 hours you get to go to Rupp Arena and to Cameron Indoor Stadium, you have to go," Pope said. "We’re not rolling in there thinking we’re going to get pounded. We’re rolling in there trying to win games."
Either way, Pope has taken the road less traveled by many teams, but it's because he believes that it will make UVU a better team.
"Vegas is going to have us losing by 2,000," Pope said. "So we're going to go see where we are right at the beginning of the season. I'm not worried about records. I'd love to win 20 games next year, and hopefully we can do that. But I'm not going to schedule 20 wins. We're trying to become the best team we can possibly become.
"To the guys that say I've lost my mind, I say 'you're right, 100 percent you're right.' To the fans, people around the program and the people in this community and this state that say this is awesome, they're right, too, 100 percent right. So let's go."
Kyle McDonald is sports fan who loves the Chicago Cubs. Follow him on Twitter at @kylesportsbias