OREM — There was an air of belief permeating through the new gym at the NUVI Basketball Center on Utah Valley University’s campus Tuesday afternoon as the Wolverines' men’s basketball team held its media day.
Perhaps part of it comes from the way last year ended: the Wolverines picked up the program’s first postseason national tournament victories, advancing to the College Basketball Invitational semifinals while winning six of their final eight games.
Perhaps another part of it comes from greater familiarity and increased depth. Five returning players started 18 games or more last season, and among the “new” faces are three Division I transfers who sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules but were still around the program.
Regardless, it’s clear the Wolverines are aiming to build on recent success and believe they have the depth and experience to further grow the program this season.
"Unlike last year where I had 13 new guys, a big percentage of my team is actually returning. I know these guys. I've got to work with these guys in the heat of the moment," UVU coach Mark Pope said. "I've seen them when they're performing under the lights, I've seen them when things are going bad.
"I feel like I have a better idea of what to expect, and I think we've done a better job this offseason coaching individuals, because we have more background and experience with them. … Hopefully, that's going to work all in our favor."
The Wolverines return three players who averaged double-digit points last year in guards Conner Toolson (11.9 points per game), Kenneth Ogbe (10.6) and Brandon Randolph (10.0). Randolph averaged a team-best 3.2 assists per game last year from his point guard position.
Isaac Neilson, who led the team in rebounding last year with 9.1 boards per game, is also back, in addition to veteran forward Zach Nelson, who averaged 7.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in 2016-17. Returning as well is guard Hayden Schenck, who averaged 17.9 minutes and 4.1 points per game and started eight contests for the Wolverines.
Joining them will be a pair of BYU transfers — guards Jake Toolson and Cory Calvert, and former Oklahoma big man Akolda Manyang, who stands 7 feet tall.
Conner Toolson pointed to the team's strong finish to last season and a year's worth of experience on the court together as indicators for potentially reaching new heights this season.
"We'll know that we've played a year with each other and got to know each other better, the way people play. That will be a big factor as to how this year goes," he said.
Just as important as players' familiarity with each other, though, is seeing personal growth.
"We want our players to grow," Pope said.
Last year, UVU wasn’t afraid to shoot from outside, hitting 300 3-pointers while attempting 937, eight-most in the country. Pope said the team’s identity this year may change a little, just based on personnel, but the Wolverines will still be looking to hit from outside routinely while also striving to finish strong at the basket.
"We've got a lot of guys that can score, and I think there will be a lot of 3-point attempts and there will be a lot of 3-point makes to go along with it," Nelson said. "I think you're going to see a lot of the same."
The season is quickly approaching, and with it comes the toughest challenge UVU has ever faced: playing two national powers — Kentucky and Duke — on back-to-back nights on the opposing team's home court to start the regular season. The Wolverines play the Wildcats at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, on Nov. 10 and the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, on Nov. 11.
Pope said the experience of playing top-tier teams in Kentucky and Duke will give UVU the opportunity to learn a lot about itself and may have positive repercussions at the end of the year.
"We're going to use it every single day, focused on just becoming the best team we can possible be come the end of the season," Pope said.