Basketball startup Utah Valley faces Kentucky and Duke in Toughest 24

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 04: A wide shot of the Cameron Indoor Stadium at the start of the second half. The Duke University Blue Devils hosted the Augustana University Vikings on November 4, 2016, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC. (Photo by Andy Mead/Icon Sportswire)
Photo by Andy Mead/Icon Sportswire

One of the fastest-growing hubs of the global tech community isn’t a suburb of California’s Silicon Valley. Rather, a booming technological economy in Utah’s Provo-Orem Valley is helping to grow a new home for innovation.

Mark Pope finds inspiration in the region’s tech surge.

“One of my next-door neighbors was in his basement nine years with his brother and his dad; now he’s a unicorn,” Pope said. Unicorn refers to a tech start-up with a valuation over $1 billion. “Another went through the process 15 years ago, 20 years ago, with Vivint.”

Launched in Provo in 1997, Vivint, Inc. has grown into one of the continent’s top home security providers. The company is lucrative enough that, in 2015, it purchased the naming rights to the Utah Jazz arena, which hosted NCAA Tournament play this past season.

For Pope, the area’s thriving industry motivates his own pursuit of the NCAA Tournament as head coach of the Utah Valley Wolverines.

The Western Athletic Conference member is in just its 13th year of Div. I membership, after reclassifying from a two-year junior college into a four-year university. The upstart Utah Valley basketball program — or, perhaps more appropriately, “start-up” program, as Pope deemed it — aims to make its name in a fashion similar to the Utah tech scene.

“They took every risk there possibly was, and grew as fast as they possibly could,” Pope said.

Utah Valley is taking its own risk on the hardwood in order to expand its visibility and growth, opening the 2017-18 college basketball season with a two-night swing through Kentucky and Duke.

The road trip, deemed #Toughest24 on social media, takes the Wolverines to Kentucky’s Rupp Arena on Nov. 10 for the season opener — a homecoming for Pope, who was a starting post player on Kentucky’s 1995-96 national championship team.

“Everybody knows I love Kentucky, the university and its fans. I think it’s the greatest college basketball program in America,” he said, but added: “It’s going to be really special if we can win. It’ll be the worst thing in the world if we lose.”

24 hours and 470 miles later, they’ll be in Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Most teams go an entire season without playing one top 5-ranked opponent, let alone two. Utah Valley will have seen two before Thanksgiving. Viewers of the HBO series Silicon Valley could liken Utah Valley’s ambition to fledgling Pied Piper, taking on the giant corporation Houli.

SPOKANE, WA – NOVEMBER 11: Utah Valley head coach Mark Pope talks to his players 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)

“What college basketball player in America doesn’t want to start his season that way?” Pope asked. “And there are some [who] don’t, but the good thing for me is if they don’t, I don’t want them on my team.”

Such is the approach Pope sees as central to Utah Valley maturing into college basketball’s version of a unicorn, as a newcomer with limitless potential.

One facet is that spirit of risk-taking — which isn’t new with the Toughest 24. The Wolverines’ 2016-17 season could have been dubbed the “Toughest 23,” in reference to the 23 road games they played. Among them was an opening night akin to next season, with Utah Valley visiting national runner-up Gonzaga.

Despite dropping a 92-69 decision, Pope said playing at The Kennel to begin the campaign set a positive tone.

“We didn’t walk into any venue feeling overly intimidated, because we played against the No. 1 team in the country at their place,” he said.

The results thereafter support his assessment. Utah Valley had some near-misses; Pope said he felt both a comeback at Washington State, and a trip to Utah in which the Wolverines led with just 1:30 left, should have ended in wins. But they did score impressive victories away from home over the course of the season.

They erased a 27-point deficit at Denver to win in the biggest comeback in the last 20 years in Div. I. The next night, the Wolverines beat neighbor BYU in the Marriott Center. In WAC play, Utah Valley scored its most significant conference win to date, ending NCAA Tournament participant New Mexico State’s 43-game winning streak at the Pan American Center in February.

Utah Valley will try to end another home-court winning streak on the second leg of the Toughest 24: Duke’s run against non-conference opponents at Cameron Indoor. The Blue Devils have not lost in front of the Cameron Crazies against a non-ACC opponent since February 2000.

At 17 years, it’s a seemingly impossible feat — particularly for a burgeoning program out of the WAC. But Pope said his team embraces the impossible.

“There’s zero part of me that has any expectation less than, ‘We’re gonna go win these games,'” Pope said. “That’s what we do. We do the impossible and do what people think we can’t do.”

The second facet of Utah Valley’s start-up mentality is seen in that attitude of trying to make the impossible possible. It’s a process that requires a serious investment of time and energy.

The Toughest 24 may not be for another five months, but Utah Valley basketball staff and players are already working toward that goal.

“We’re in the middle of June and we were in the office until midnight last night, then rolled in at 5:45 this morning,” Pope said. “That’s just who we are. That’s the staff I put together, that’s the players we recruit. We do not lose a second of the day trying to pursue this goal.”

Think of it like the stories that often detail a tech company’s rise: driven individuals working tirelessly in a garage toward achieving a vision. Some good news for Utah Valley basketball is that it’s not pursuing its hoop dreams in the equivalent of a basement or garage, however. Pope touted the NUVI Basketball Center, which opened last summer, as a symbol of the university athletic department and UVU fan base’s commitment to growing the program.

From the same region where dreams have made competitors to Silicon Valley behemoths, the same spirit willingly faces down the basketball giants of Durham and Lexington.

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