UND men's basketball opponent Utah Valley plays demanding schedule

GRAND FORKS — Like the University of North Dakota, Utah Valley is a mid-major men’s basketball program.
Like UND, Utah Valley also needs to play guarantee–or money games–on the road–usually against Power 5 programs.
But Utah Valley may have taken guarantee games to a new level earlier this season.
UND hosts Utah Valley Saturday, Nov. 25, at The Betty in perhaps one of the more difficult home games for the Hawks this season.
Utah Valley is 3-2 this season, with its losses coming at No. 8 Kentucky and No. 1 Duke.
Utah Valley’s guarantee games at Kentucky and Duke came on back-to-back nights to start the season, something few–if any–mid-major teams will attempt. And the Wolverines pushed Kentucky before falling 73-63.
But Utah Valley coach Mark Pope, who has Kentucky ties and who also played in the NBA, won’t back down from any program.
“I know nobody does it,” said Pope of the back-to-back guarantee games. “I know it breaks every convention in coaching. Last year we played our very best basketball at the end of the season, and it wasn’t because I massaged the schedule and grew their confidence. It’s because we said, ‘We’re going to go play everybody.’
“I don’t care about my record. College basketball is meant to go play guys, not to protect your job. I don’t want to back my way into 20 wins. Maybe that means I get fired tomorrow. But I want to get fired by racing straight ahead and competing.”
UND coach Brian Jones said Utah Valley presents a major challenge.
“We’re going to know where we’re at Saturday afternoon,” said Jones.
Utah Valley also owns a road win over Idaho State of the Big Sky Conference and a home win over Big West member UC Davis.
UND and Utah Valley are no strangers. They were members of the former Great West Conference and split six games during their time in the league.
“Even when we were together in the Great West, they were a great program and one I always respected,” Jones said. “The have five Division I transfers; they’re an older group playing at a high level and they’re scared of no one.”
UND also is 3-2, having won its home opener earlier this week against Division III Northland College of Ashland, Wis. But a slow UND start was concerning.
“We have to respect every opponent,” said UND junior center Conner Avants. “It’s so hard to win a Division I basketball game.”
UND again will be at a size disadvantage up front. The Wolverines, now a member of the Western Athletic Conference, are led by 7-foot center Akolda Manyang (15.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg).
“It should be a good challenge,” said the 6-7 Avants of the Wolverines’ size. “But it’s also a game that can help us grow some more for conference.”
UND already has played a guarantee game–at Nebraska. And the Hawks have two more of those games–Dec. 5 at Creighton and Dec. 17 at No. 17 Gonzaga, which blasted Ohio State late Thursday night.
Jones understands why mid-major programs need to play guarantee games.
And he understands why Utah Valley took on Kentucky and Duke on back-to-back nights.
“When you get a chance to play at Rupp Arena or Cameron Indoor Stadium, that’s more than basketball,” he said. “That’s part of the (basketball) experience; part of the history and tradition. You want to give that to your kids so they can talk about it for the rest of their lives.”