Fairly hidden from the national conscious in the Mountain Time Zone, Utah is hardly the first place most think of as a hotbed for college basketball. Tobacco Road it is not-in so many ways-but when it comes to consistent quality among its NCAA Division I programs, few can match The Beehive State’s record over the last two decades.
Brigham Young, Utah, Utah State and Weber State are all respected programs that annually win 20-plus games and regularly compete for trips to the NCAA Tournament. For a state that has just six Division I members, it’s a very deep group, and doubly so considering Utah has few benefits of major media markets or sizable populations that many other areas that come to mind might have (see: New York, North Carolina, and even Indiana’s population is more than double that of Utah).
Incredibly, the competition in Utah may be getting even deeper. Utah Valley-a still-young Division I member that was a junior college not that long ago and aspires to get to the level of its area brethren-registered one of the biggest surprises of the early weeks of the season on Saturday when it won at BYU 114-101 on Saturday, capping a banner week for the program.
The Wolverines outgunned the Cougars at their own high-octane offensive game, hitting 18 three-pointers and shooting nearly 53%. Isaac Neilson-a former BYU transfer-scored 26 points, while Connor Toolson-whose father Andy played at BYU-also scored 21. This was no fluke, either-Utah Valley never trailed in the second half and led most of the game.
The Wolverines are a team on the move in the Western Athletic Conference, the venerable conference that just refuses to die and is developing into a pretty solid league at the top, with UVU, New Mexico State, Cal State-Bakersfield and Grand Canyon making a solid top four. Dick Hunsaker did an outstanding job taking the Wolverines from junior college status to Division I, leading them to an NIT bid in 2014. His predecessor is Mark Pope, a former Kentucky star who has quickly built a buzz around the program, and Saturday’s win came just three days after UVU came back from a 27-point deficit to defeat Denver 88-85 in one of the bigger comebacks in NCAA history.
For BYU, this is a discouraging loss and another sign yet that perhaps this is a team that just can’t shed its stripes. The Cougars are one of the most explosive offensive teams in the country, able to blitz opponents with 18-20 points as quickly as any team out there. The defensive end has typically been another matter, and while perhaps some of that is a trade-off to being so offensive-minded, the performances by Valparaiso and now Utah Valley in back-to-back games are not encouraging for a team that had been shutting teams down quite nicely in a 4-0 start to the season, allowing just 64.8 points in those games before allowing-gulp-103.0 over its last two losses.
- Another team making a serious statement on Saturday: South Carolina. The Gamecocks defeated Syracuse handily 64-50 in a game that was close to home turf for the Cuse, played in Brooklyn. It took Frank Martin a couple years, but it’s clear he has this program on a similar track now to the one he left Kansas State on. Good to see-Martin is a hoops original and his teams always play hard and are fun to watch.
- Thirty-seven years after falling in the tournament final, Iona finally has its first Great Alaska Shootout crown after defeating Nevada 75-73 in a terrific game. Jon Severe scored on a driving layup with :00.5 left, answering after the Wolf Pack’s Marcus Marshall had tied the game with 11 seconds left. Terrific game late at night, and the Gaels avenged a 91-76 loss to Nevada in Reno just a week earlier.
- The Emerald Coast Classic goes to Virginia, which toughed out a 63-52 win over Providence. The Friars’ 52 points are the most the Cavaliers have allowed an opponent this year. For those who prefer offense, thankfully the consolation game was a direct contrast, with Memphis outlasting Iowa 100-92 for a solid win despite the Hawkeyes’ Peter Jok lighting it up for 42 points. Dedric Lawson totaled 35 points himself for the Tigers.
- Also winning tournament titles Saturday: Maryland, which fought back for a 69-68 win over Kansas State in the Barclays Center Classic, and TCU, which topped Washington 93-80 to move to 6-0 and win the Global Sports Classic in Las Vegas.
- Xavier defeated Northern Iowa for the second time in less than a week, this time hammering the Panthers 64-42 at the Cintas Center by taking a 35-12 halftime lead. The Musketeers are very tough at home and gave a surprising lesson in physicality to a UNI team that plays in one of the most physical leagues in the country in the Missouri Valley.
- Beating the buzzer Sunday: UNC Wilmington got a triple from Denzel Ingram as time expired to beat Evansville 65-62, while Amadou Sidibe’s tip-in at the buzzer gave Fairfield a 75-74 win over Army, capping a Stags’ rally from nine points down in the final three minutes.
- Vermont edged Yale 67-65 in a terrific matchup in the Northeast as Ernie Duncan scored the winning basket with one second left.
- Also still unbeaten: Notre Dame, a 91-60 winner of Chicago State; Houston, after an 83-53 rout of Cornell; Tennessee State, which is 6-0 after a 96-64 win over Reinhardt (Ga.), and San Francisco, which rolled past Sacramento State 77-59 and is now 4-0.
- After snapping a 26-year NCAA Tournament drought in March, Oregon State is off to a bad start, and the news got worse yesterday as it was revealed Tres Tinkle broke a bone in his non-shooting hand wrist in the Beavers’ 63-58 loss to Fresno State on Friday. Tres-the son of OSU head coach Wayne Tinkle-scored a career-high 31 points against the Bulldogs and is leading the team at over 20 points per game, and he would be a huge loss for a team that even with him has lost four straight.
- Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend brings championship games topping full schedules in the AdvoCare Invitational and Wooden Legacy. Iowa State and Gonzaga face off in the title game in Orlando in a game that should feature plenty of offense, while UCLA will play Texas A&M in Anaheim.
- One of the most underrated rivalries in the country is the battle for Albany, and Siena hits the road this year to play at UAlbany in what should be a blast tonight.
- Amidst the buffet of exempted round robin events, the best game is UAB at Saint Mary’s in Las Vegas. A few of the other better games: Cal State-Bakersfield takes on North Dakota at Wright State’s Nutter Center, and Evansville plays Middle Tennessee State in Nashville.
- Pretty much no one would’ve anticipated it before the season, but Lehigh’s trip to Arkansas State is suddenly one of the best games of the weekend, a very intriguing intersectional game between two schools half a country apart. The game will be a homecoming for Lehigh guard Kahron Ross, who is a native of Jonesboro.
- New Hampshire goes to Winthrop in a pairing of two of the top teams in the America East and Big South, respectively.
Have a great Sunday.