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West Coast Wednesday: a marquee win for Utah Valley

SPOKANE, WA - NOVEMBER 11: Utah Valley sophomore guard Hayden Schenck (5) controls a rebound during the game between the Utah Valley University Wolverines and the Gonzaga University Bulldogs. Gonzaga opened their season with a 92-69 win. (Photo by Robert Johnson/Icon Sportswire)
Icon Sportswire

Utah Valley’s 114-101 win over in-state counterpart Brigham Young on Saturday won’t be the program’s defining moment, but rather a stepping stone, if Wolverines head coach Mark Pope has his way.

“This won’t be the best moment we have at Utah Valley,” he said, via the school’s official athletic site. “We still have so much work that we have to do and we can become such a better team but this is a really special night for us.”

Knocking off a quality opponent with NCAA Tournament aspirations is indeed a special moment for a relative newbie program, made all the more meaningful coming on the road.

BYU’s Marriott Center has a deserved reputation as one of the West’s most inhospitable venues for visitors. Utah Valley weathered the noise of a crowd 16,003 strong, and the Wolverines beat BYU at its own game.

Utah Valley has only been a full-fledged university eight years, and the 2016-’17 academic year marks the Wolverines’ eighth season as Div. I members. This season could be a landmark one for the Wolverines, who are off to a 4-1 start with their sole loss coming at Gonzaga.

The Western Athletic Conference race should be wide open; longtime WAC stalwart New Mexico State is in a transitional state, and defending WAC Tournament champion Bakersfield opened 4-3 through the first three weeks (albeit against a more challenging slate than Utah Valley’s faced).

Regardless, Utah Valley’s balanced scoring — four players scored in the 20s at BYU, and five Wolverines are averaging between 11 and 15.4 points per game — should put it squarely in the hunt for the school’s first NCAA Tournament bid.

BYU Already on The Bubble?

It’s not yet December as of this writing, but BYU’s at-large hopes for the NCAA Tournament took a vicious one-two combination over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Utah Valley currently sports a KenPom.com ranking of No. 256. The Wolverines winning the WAC might clean up that loss as the season goes on, but BYU will be carrying it while jockeying with other mid-major bubble teams — teams like Valparaiso, which handed the Cougars a 92-89 loss last Wednesday in Las Vegas.

BYU had no answer Valpo’s All-America forward Alec Peters — not necessarily surprising, given BYU’s more perimeter-oriented look. However, after losing the rebounding battle to the Crusaders 42-33, they again lost on the glass to Utah Valley, 43-38.

Those figures are meaningful, because West Coast Conference favorites Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga boast two of the largest rebounding margins through the season’s early going. Some wins against the Zags and Gaels became of greater importance for BYU to build a March resume after last week’s defeats.

What’s Up With The Mountain West?

BYU’s start isn’t the only at-large concern out West through the first few weeks of play. The Mountain West had been one of college basketball’s fastest rising conferences just a few seasons ago, but in 2015-’16, it sent just one team to the NCAA Tournament: No. 14-seed Fresno State.

Last year’s regular-season champion and 2016 Big Dance snub San Diego State again looks to be the class of the Mountain West. The Aztecs have played just once since scoring a signature win over Cal, but that one time out brought a noteworthy milestone.

Barring San Diego State again losing the Mountain West Tournament to an underdog, and the Aztecs getting the at-large bid they were denied a season ago, the early forecast suggests it’s another one-bid year.

Boise State came close to scoring the conference’s most important win of the campaign, taking Oregon to the wire in Eugene on Monday, but the Broncos fell just short — much like Nevada, which fell to Iona in the waning moments of the Great Alaska Shootout title game on Saturday night.

Nevada rallied from a double-digit deficit against that same Iona squad a week prior. The Pack’s win over the No. 95 Iona Gaels stands out as one of the few KenPom Top 100 wins to the MW’s credit thus far.

USC A Pac-12 Dark Horse

Andy Enfield’s much-needed breakthrough season at USC looks like the beginning of bigger things to come for the Trojans. A week ago, WCW noted USC’s win on the road at Texas A&M — a Texas A&M team that this past Sunday gave UCLA all it could handle in the championship round of the Wooden Classic.

UCLA parlayed its win over the Aggies into the highest ranking of any Pac-12 team in the current Associated Press Poll.

USC has yet to break into the Top 25, but another marquee win scored last week over SMU makes a strong case for the undefeated Trojans.

“SMU is a quality team and will probably win 20-plus games. It was a big win for us,” Enfield said, per USCTrojans.com.

USC may have do more to break into the Top 25. BYU is the next noteworthy challenge; the Trojans and Cougars play in a double-header at Staples Center, which also features Arizona vs. Gonzaga.

Whether the Trojans break the Top 25 soon or not, Enfield’s squad looks like a challenger in the Pac-12. Bennie Boatwright’s continued maturation into a dominant post presence sets the foundation for a talented and young roster that should only improve as the season goes along.

Enfield credited the play of freshmen against SMU, and first-year Trojans like De’Anthony Melton and Jonah Mathews will prove crucial to USC’s chances in the conference.

Historic Week in Phoenix

Grand Canyon captured the nation’s attention a season ago, flourishing under head coach and former Phoenix Suns star Dan Majerle. While the Antelopes are just 3-3 to start 2016-’17, including a loss to SIU-Edwardsville, this week still brings some historic weight to the Valley of the Sun.

A Top 15-ranked Louisville team visits GCU Arena on Saturday, the first time an AP Top 25 squad has visited the university. San Diego State comes to town just four days later.

One-Man Dunk Contest

Oregon State’s start hasn’t exactly been glowing, but Beaver big man Drew Eubanks showing against Southern Oregon deserves kudos. Eubanks put on a show around the rim.

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