The state of Utah failed to produce a contestant in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament last year. That could change in 2014, from an unlikely source.
In its first season of automatic-qualifying access to the tournament, Utah Valley University is leading the Western Athletic Conference with a 4-0 record. The Wolverines somehow delivered a 52-51 win at Seattle on Sunday, after the home team was in-bounding the ball with a one-point lead and 3.9 seconds left.
UVU (10-7) belongs in NCAA Tournament bracket projections, which is more than can be said for any of the state’s other five Division I programs at the moment.
New Mexico State probably remains the favorite to win the WAC tournament in Las Vegas in March and earn the league’s NCAA bid, but the fact is the Aggies already have two conference losses. UVU, which hosts Missouri-Kansas City in Orem on Thursday and Chicago State on Saturday, meets NMSU for the first time Feb. 1.
There’s a long way to go in the 16-game WAC schedule, followed by the conference tournament, but the Wolverines obviously have something going for them. They beat Idaho 71-66 on the road Thursday, then staged Sunday’s miraculous finish at KeyArena — not far from CenturyLink Field, the site of the Seattle Seahawks’ victory over San Francisco in the NFC championship game.
Basically, all the Redhawks had to do was complete an in-bounds pass to secure the win, but the ball was fumbled. UVU’s Mitch Bruneel grabbed the ball and was tripped in the process. His two free throws with 2 seconds remaining completed a career-high 20-point game for the Utah State transfer.
The Wolverines haven’t won any of their four WAC games by more than eight points, and the schedule will get tougher, beginning this week. But they’ve already proven that they’ll have as much chance as anybody to win the WAC tournament and get an NCAA bid. That would be remarkable for a program that was competing as a junior college earlier this century.
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