Five things to know about Kentucky’s first regular-season opponent the Utah Valley Wolverines:
1. Mark Pope is Utah Valley’s head coach
Given the recent coverage, you probably already knew this. After starting his college career at Washington, Pope transferred to Kentucky where he was part of Rick Pitino’s 1996 national championship team. Pope played professionally from 1996-97 through 2004-05 both overseas and the NBA.
Pope enrolled in the Columbia University Medical School in 2006, but dropped out in 2009 to accept Mark Fox’s offer to work on the basketball staff at Georgia. Pope was an assistant at Wake Forest and BYU before accepting the head coaching job at Utah Valley in 2015-16.
His first two UVU teams have gone 12-18 and 17-17. They posted identical 6-8 records in the Western Athletic Conference.
Pope’s teams play a high-energy dribble weave offense he picked up during his time under Dave Rose at BYU. The Wolverines averaged 76.9 points per game last season.
2. “The Toughest 24 Hours of Basketball History”
After playing at Kentucky on Friday, Utah Valley plays at Duke on Saturday. Kentucky has won eight national championships. Duke has won five. UK is ranked No. 5 in this year’s pre-season AP poll. Duke is ranked No. 1. Pope has billed it as “The Toughest 24 Hours of Basketball History.”
According to reports, Utah Valley is being piad $90,000 to play Kentucky and $85,000 to play Duke.
“We went back and forth trying to figure out whether this was true genius or whether this was the dumbest plan in the world,” Pope told the Herald-Leader’s Jerry Tipton. “People say this will be the toughest 24 hours. It could be the dumbest 24 hours.”
Pope said about 55 donors to the Utah Valley program will make the trip to Lexington and then Durham.
It’s heady stuff for a school which played junior college basketball from 1984 to 2003.
3. Utah Valley was picked to finish third in the WAC
The media picked the Wolverines to finish third in the conference. The coaches picked Pope’s team to finish fourth. After all, UVU returns five of its top six scorers from a team that reached the last year’s final four of the College Basketball Invitational, a post-season tournament, where it lost to Wyoming.
Senior 6-11 forward Isaac Neilson earned pre-season All-WAC first-team honors by the media and second team by the honors. Neilson averaged 9.6 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots per game last season. The BYU transfer earned WAC All-Defensive team honors.
Kenneth Ogbe, a 6-7 transfer from Utah, was the Wolverines’ leading three-point shooter last season, making 40.8 percent of his attempts. A native of Germany, Ogbe played two full seasons at Utah before transferring to UVU.
Brandon Randolph, a 6-2 junior, averaged 10 points per game after transferring from Xavier. Randolph led the team in minutes (27.4) per game and assists (3.9). He was second on the team in rebounds at 5.1 per game. He was credited with a school-record 14 assists last season against BYU.
Randolph made six of 10 shots and scored 14 points in Utah Valley’s 81-70 exhibition win over Dixie State on Nov. 1.
4. Utah Valley has a 7-foot transfer center
Akolda Manyang is a senior transfer who sat out last season after playing at Oklahoma. Manyang played 25 games on the Sooners’ 2015-16 Final Four team when he averaged 2.5 points, 21. rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots in 8.0 minutes per game. He scored a season-high 11 points against Central Arkansas.
Born in the Sudan, Manyang’s family moved to Houston when he was two, then to Rochester, Minn. when Manyang was 14. He played two seasons at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa before going to Oklahoma, where he ended up being dismissed from the team.
After OU’s first game of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, Manyang left the team to return to Minnesota following the suicide death of his older brother, Ater Manyang, who hanged himself in a state addiction treatment center in Minnesota.
Not quite two months later, Akolda Manyang was charged with felony assault for allegedly punching a former OU football player. Then in June, Manyang and a friend were accused of aggravated assault in Minnesota when they allegedly assaulted a cab driver and took his keys. Both men were intoxicated at the time.
Manyang was dismissed from the Oklahoma squad and wound up at Utah Valley. After sitting out last season, Manyang scored 19 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots in 21 minutes in the exhibition win over Dixie State.
5. Watch out for the Toolson cousins
The Wolverines are expected to start both Conner Toolson, a 6-4 junior from Highland, Utah, and 6-5 guard Jake Toolson from Gilbert, Arizona. The two are cousins.
Conner Toolson was born in Zaragoza, Spain, among the countries where his father Andy played professionally for 10 years, including two with the Utah Jazz, after a college career at BYU. Conner Toolson served a Morman mission and will be 23 years old on Nov. 27.
In his one season in junior college, Toolson led Salt Lake Community College to the junior college national title in 2015-16, averaging 14.7 points per game. Toolson scored 28 points in the championship game.
He transferred to Utah Valley and led the Wolverines in scoring at 11.9 points per game last season. He scored a season-high 29 points against Texas-San Antonio.
Jake Toolson is the nephew of former BYU star and current Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. Jake also started out at BYU where he played in 10 games, starting five before taking a medical leave of absence in 2015-16. He sat out the 2016-17 season as a transfer.
Conner Toolson scored 14 points in the exhibition win over Dixie State. Jake Toolson scored three points and turned the ball over four times.
Utah Valley at Kentucky
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena in Lexington
TV: SEC Network with Rich Hollenberg, Sean Farnham and Brooke Weisbroad
Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt