Veteran Utah Valley squad grabs early control of WAC race

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Before the season began many, yours truly included, made the assumption that WAC holdover New Mexico State would be the class of the conference. With preseason player of the year in Daniel Mullings and reigning WAC tournament MVP Sim Bhullar leading the way, Marvin Menzies’ team was expected to take full advantage of the hand conference realignment had dealt them and make another NCAA tournament appearance.

However things haven’t worked out as anticipated for the Aggies, who are one of three teams tied for second place in the WAC standings. So who’s leading the way? That would be Dick Hunsaker’s Utah Valley Wolverines, who have an unblemished 6-0 WAC record in spite of the fact that they haven’t performed as well as they would like on the offensive end of the floor.

“We’d love to make more shots and have higher scoring, but it’s also good to have balance,” Hunsaker told NBC Sports last week. “We try to work together as a team and take what the game gives us.”

The Wolverines, who held off Chicago State on Saturday, have five players scoring in double figures but in conference games they’re tied for seventh in the WAC in scoring offense (66.3 ppg) and sixth in field goal percentage (42.1%). Utah Valley, with guards Keawe Enos (47.2%) and Hayes Garrity (38.8%) leading the way, is ranked second in the WAC in three-point percentage as they’ve made 37% of their attempts in conference play.

But the scoring and field goal percentage numbers lead to the question of how this team has a two-game lead in the standings in spite of those issues. The answer: they’ve defended, and they do the “little things” well.

In conference play Utah Valley has been the best defensive team in the WAC, leading the way in scoring defense (58.7 ppg), field goal percentage defense (37.2%) and three-point percentage defense (24.6%), and they’re also tops in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5). Hunsaker’s Wolverines control tempo, as they average the fewest possessions of any team in the WAC, and that along with their work on the defensive end has allowed them to properly navigate those shooting issues to a 6-0 start to conference play.

Another key has been continuity, with the Wolverines using the same starting lineup for each of their 19 games this season. Of those five starters four are upperclassmen with forward Zach Nelson (freshman) being the lone underclassman. He’s been an effective addition to the lineup for Utah Valley, averaging 10.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, and Nelson grabbed 12 rebounds in each of the Wolverines last two wins.

He’s half of a solid interior combination, with steady senior center Ben Aird playing well after earning first team All-Great West honors a season ago. On the season Aird’s averaging 11.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, but in conference play the 6-foot-9 pivot has averaged 15.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest. And that increase in production has factored into the Wolverines’ hot start.

“Ben has great basketball savvy,” Hunsaker said of his senior big man. “For a big man he has a good feel and multiple skills, and he’s a big-bodied, long-armed guy.”

With players such as Aird, Nelson, leading scorer Holton Hunsaker (12.1 ppg, 4.2 apg) and Mitch Bruneel (10.2, 5.7 rpg), Utah Valley has the production needed to remain one of the pacesetters in the WAC race. And while the overwhelming focus of the WAC in regards to conference realignment has been on the negative, for a team like Utah Valley the move presents them with the opportunity to earn a ticket to the NCAA tournament. But even with that “carrot” available for the taking, the program hasn’t changed its approach.

“We’ve always played the next game and had a lot of success as a team and had some wonderful individual achievements through a period when we were playing without [the possibility of] an automatic bid,” said Hunsaker. “This team committed here without that wonderful goal and opportunity ahead of them. We simply just try to get prepared for the next game.”

That approach has been a successful one for Utah Valley thus far, and with their next three contests being on the road (including games against New Mexico State and Grand Canyon, which are both 4-2 in WAC play) maintaining that mindset will be critical for the Wolverines. And given their maturity, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Utah Valley did just that.

Miller Time: Indiana coach cashes in with $24 million deal

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — New Indiana coach Archie Miller will make $24 million under his seven-year deal — and potentially even more in bonuses.

Miller accepted the job in March, but the athletic department didn’t announce details of the contract until Tuesday.

He will receive a base salary of $550,000 per year and $1 million in deferred income each season. Miller also will receive an additional $1.85 million in outside marketing and promotional income — and will get a $50,000 per year raise each year through March 2024.

Miller can earn a $250,000 bonus for winning a national championship. He can earn an additional $125,000 for a Big Ten regular-season title, reaching the Final Four and producing multiyear Academic Progress Rate scores over 950.

Utah, BYU rivalry back on after one-year hiatus

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The BYU-Utah annual rivalry series will be back on this season after taking a one-year hiatus last year.

For just the second time since 1909, the Utes and the Cougars did not play in 2016-17 after Utah head coach Larry Kyrstkowiak asked for a one-year cooling off period stemming from an intense and emotional game against BYU in 2015-16. In that game, then-freshman Nick Emery was ejected as a result of this punch that he threw:

The last time those two teams did not play was due to World War II.

The game will be played at BYU on Dec. 16th.

Utah will also play Utah State this season, the first time that they have played the Aggies since 2011.

 

California bans state-funded travel to eight states; does it affect college hoops?

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A new California law could end up causing a headache for the sports teams for public universities in the state.

Because of recently-added laws that are perceived as discriminatory against the LGBT community, California has now banned travel to eight states: Texas, Alabama, Kentucky and South Dakota join a list that already includes Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The law states that contracts that were signed before Jan. 1st, 2017, are exempted and can be fulfilled, but there’s not guarantee that will be the case in the future.

“Moving forward, the athletic department will not schedule future games in states that fail to meet the standards established by the new law,” a UCLA spokesman told the Sacramento Bee. That said, the university does not use state funding for travel sports teams as it currently stands, and the goal of the law to avoid “spending taxpayer dollars in states that discriminate,” according to California’s Attorney General.

On the college basketball side of things, the biggest question mark here is whether or not this law will prevent teams from playing in the NCAA tournament if they are sent to a site in one of those eight states. Next season alone, there are first weekend sites in Kansas, Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee, not to mention the Final Four taking place in San Antonio. The location for many of those events were determined prior to January 1st.

“We are generally not going to deny student-athletes the opportunity to compete in the postseason,” a UCLA spokesman told NBC Sports.

The next question then becomes whether or not regular season travel will be allowed. Earlier this year, Cal dropped out of talks with Kansas about a potential home-and-home series due to this law, and if regular season travel is not allowed, it would mean that Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville and Wichita State, along with Kansas, are not allowed to be visited by California public schools that need state funding to travel. A request for a clarification on the legality of college sports teams traveling to those states has been filed with the Attorney General by Fresno State, whose football team is headed to Alabama for a game this year.

Travel for recruiting is also a question that needs to be answered, but at the highest level of the sport, that is typically funded by boosters.

N.C. State adds grad transfer Sam Hunt

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N.C. State added its fourth transfer this offseason. Like ex-Baylor guard Al Freeman, the latest one is eligible to play next season.

Sam Hunt, a double-digit scorer the past two seasons at North Carolina A&T, officially enrolled at North Carolina State on Monday morning.

“Sam is a great young man and will bring much needed depth to our backcourt,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said in a statement. “I want guys who are excited about being a part of our program and Sam really wants to be here.

“Sam is a combo guard that can space the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball. He is a good fit for the system and will bring a wealth of experience to our roster.”

Hunt, the 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 12.7 points per game last season, a dip from the 15.4 points per game he posted for the Aggies as a redshirt sophomore.

Hunt joins a roster that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago, one that ended 15-17 (4-14 ACC). Dennis Smith Jr. is a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Maverick Rowan also pursued a professional career and Terry Henderson was denied an additional year from the NCAA.

The Wolf Pack bring back forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven as well as Torin Dorn.

Keatts, who took over the program after leading UNC Wilmington to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, has already built for the future. UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce, 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Seahawks, has followed him to Raleigh. Utah transfer Devon Daniels committed to the Wolf Pack the same day as Bryce. Both will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. Bryce will have two years of eligibility while Daniels will have three.

LaVar Ball stars in an uncomfortably entertaining segment on WWE’s Raw

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LaVar Ball’s statements and antics over this past year always seemed better suited a professional wrestling ring.

It was only natural that the patriarch of the Ball family — and the head of the Big Baller Brand — made an appearance on WWE’s Monday Night Raw at the Staples Center for an awkwardly entertaining segment with WWE Intercontinental Champion The Miz.

With sons, Lonzo — in his first appearance in the Staples Center as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — and LaMelo looking on, LaVar was the center of attention. When The Miz mentioned something about a partnership between the two, the scripted interview went south. It resulted in LaVar saying nonsensical things like, “There’s only two dudes better than me, and I’m both of ’em!” before later taking off his shirt. When Dean Ambrose, a WWE superstar feuding with The Miz came out on to the ramp, LaVar didn’t quite grasp the concept that that was his cue to stop talking.

This segment was somehow entertaining and cringeworthy at the same time.

Now that Lonzo is beginning his NBA career, maybe it’s time LaVar try something different. A manager in the WWE may just be his true calling. He’s certainly had plenty of practice.