Kurt Kragthorpe: Utah Valley’s victory extends WAC’s evolution
Wolverines defeat Grand Canyon during first home game in new conference.
Published: January 12, 2014 07:42PM
Updated: March 24, 2014 11:33PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Orem

Exactly 51 years after BYU launched Western Athletic Conference basketball play with a loss at Arizona State, Utah Valley University staged it first WAC home game Saturday night against Grand Canyon.

The campuses of UVU and GCU might be only a combined 22 miles from BYU and ASU, but the league has evolved far more than such geography suggests.

“We’re kind of reinventing ourselves as a conference,” said commissioner Jeff Hurd, a WAC staff member for nearly 30 years. “It’s different, as everybody knows.”

This probably should have happened sooner for UVU, but the Wolverines were well positioned for the move from the defunct Great West. Senior center Ben Aird’s 21 points and 15 rebounds spurred UVU’s 65-58 victory over Grand Canyon, coached by former NBA star Dan Majerle, in front of 2,114 fans at the UCCU Center. Holton Hunsaker scored 15 points and Mitch Bruneel, who played in the old WAC for Utah State before transferring, added 12.

“It’s not really weird, it’s just different,” Bruneel said. “Coming over here, the WAC’s completely different.”

When the WAC was created, nobody would have imagined what was then the Provo-based Central Utah Vocational School ever becoming a member of an athletic conference with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament — and certainly not a league with members located in Kansas City and Chicago.

So while this is not the WAC of the BYU/Utah era or even anything resembling the league that included Utah State, the brand should mean something around here. And you’d better believe this WAC home opener was significant to UVU administrators.

“Sometimes, I just kind of take a deep breath and realize it finally happened,” said Mike Jacobsen, who retired last summer after 29 years as the former junior college’s athletic director.

“It’s been a long, long haul to get to this point,” said D.J. Smith, another longtime administrator.

Just like the Pac-12, the Mountain West and the West Coast Conference, the WAC will stage a conference tournament in Las Vegas in March — with the winner advancing to the NCAA Tournament. That’s logically New Mexico State, but who knows? It could be UVU. The Wolverines are 2-0 in the conference, having beaten Cal State-Bakersfield on the road last weekend.

Grand Canyon is where UVU once was, as a transitional Division I member. The Antelopes will play a full schedule in the nine-team WAC, but are ineligible for the conference tournament.

This is the WAC’s 52nd basketball season, with an all-time roster of 35 schools.

BYU and Utah were charter members in 1962 and stayed through ‘99. Utah State joined in 2005 and stayed through last season before moving to the Mountain West.

UVU already won a WAC men’s cross country championship in November, but the arrival of basketball opponents on the campus makes the membership seem more real, and 12th-year coach Dick Hunsaker appreciated the moment Saturday.

“Honestly, it’s nice to do things the first time for an institution,” Hunsaker said. “It is meaningful to all those who labored so long in the trenches, behind the scenes.”

The attendance was slightly below average on a night when the Wolverines competed with BYU’s home game, but UVU should develop a bigger following as more recognizable WAC teams such as Idaho and New Mexico State come to town.

And the WAC is happy to have a presence in Utah, with its fourth school. UVU “fits our model of what we’re trying to do as we move on,” Hurd said. “Its upside is unlimited, as far as I can see.”

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt