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It's officially time to take UVU basketball seriously

Utah Valley Wolverines players celebrate as they overtake the Utah Utes at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.
Utah Valley Wolverines players celebrate as they overtake the Utah Utes at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.
Spenser Heaps,

If Nov. 26 wasn’t enough to show that the UVU men’s basketball team is for real, Nov. 30 should have solidified it even more, and then Tuesday night should have put the nail in the coffin.

Two days after Thanksgiving, the upstart Wolverines knocked off BYU in the Marriott Center thanks to some incredible shooting. Four days later, they showed it wasn’t fool’s gold when they nearly beat Pac-12 foe Washington State on the road.

On Tuesday night at the Huntsman Center against another Conference of Champions opponent, the Runnin’ Utes, UVU led by three with two minutes remaining before falling 87-80.

After the game, Utah forward Kyle Kuzma said he feels the Wolverines will be the Western Athletic Conference’s champion come March.

But how is a team that went 12-18 a year ago with a bunch of new faces doing this?

Hindsight is always 20/20, but perhaps it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.

After all, two of the team’s three leading scorers, Isaac Neilson and Kenneth Ogbe, transferred from BYU and Utah, respectively. The other, Conner Toolson, carried Salt Lake Community College to the National Junior College Athletic Association title last spring. A fourth player, Brandon Randolph, transferred to Orem from Xavier, a program that’s ranked No. 13 in the country.

In other words, the Wolverine roster is full of guys who can play. Combine that with a coach in Mark Pope who many see as an up-and-coming star in the profession, and you’ve got a dangerous combo.

Interestingly on Tuesday night, neither Ogbe nor Toolson was all that great, as the duo combined to score just eight points. The Utes under head coach Larry Krystkowiak have always been good at taking away opponents’ top options, and Tuesday was no exception.

But good teams find other ways to compete, and UVU did just that. Neilson had a dominant performance, scoring 28 points and pulling down 15 rebounds, while Jordan Poydras, a transfer from St. Cloud State in Minnesota, added 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-7 from downtown. Randolph finished with 14 points, seven assists and three rebounds.

A team that hung 114 points on the Cougars, the Wolverines on Tuesday night shot just over 49 percent from the field, showing that their offensive performance in Provo 11 days ago wasn’t all that much of an outlier. Additionally, they stayed close on the glass against a good rebounding team in Utah, losing that statistical category by just one.

Beyond statistics, UVU didn’t throw in the towel when it got down by 14 early in the second half, as Poydras scored 11 of the Wolverines’ next 13 points, and they were quickly back within four, setting up the tight finish.

Down the stretch, Randolph and Neilson got in on the act as the Huntsman Center crowd felt the need to get raucous in hopes of helping the home team.

All of this is to say UVU should be looked at differently as conference play approaches than it was before beating BYU and maybe how it was even as the calendar changed from November to December. No longer should the Wolverines be known as the group that shocked BYU, but they should be expected to prove Kuzma’s prediction accurate.

Tuesday’s game can certainly be looked at through a Utes lens as well. Also a group that still doesn’t have much experience playing with each other, Utah looked confused on offense early and struggled all night to stop Neilson down low.

Part of that had to do with focusing more attention on Ogbe and Toolson, but nevertheless, lineups that featured Kuzma and Tyler Rawson in the frontcourt weren’t exactly stout on the defensive end. David Collette will be a welcomed presence there in a few weeks, and more production from highly touted freshman Jayce Johnson would be a bonus.

A major positive that emerged for the Utes Tuesday was the fact that they made shots from the perimeter. Having struggled with that up to this point, Utah connected on 10 of its 22 3-pointers, compared to 7-of-20 for UVU.

Seven games in, the jury is still out on just how good this Ute team can be. The additions of Collette and sophomore guard Sedrick Barefield in a few weeks will only further keep that question alive as Krystkowiak and company move into conference play.

Despite the Ute victory, what is certain is that the Wolverines were the team at the Huntsman Center Tuesday night that will be more feared in their conference as the season rolls along.

Ryan McDonald is a sports reporter at DeseretNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanwmcdonald.