Inside Utah Valley’s 24 hours of Kentucky and Duke


College basketball’s opening weekend didn’t feature an abundance of marquee matchups, but one team went through a scheduling gauntlet.

Utah Valley University, picked to finish third in the Western Athletic Conference, embarked Friday on what they called the #Toughest24, one of the most grueling 24-hour stretches in any sport.

Friday? A 10-point loss to No. 5 Kentucky.

Saturday? A 30-point loss to No. 1 Duke.

This back-to-back made Utah Valley the first team in AP poll history (since 1948-49) to begin its season with a pair of road games against AP top-five opponents.

ESPN was given a front-row seat of the entire experience, from the team’s preparation for their daunting assignments early in the week to the aftermath of Saturday’s loss.

Here’s how the week unfolded.

Getting to know UVU’s program

Head coach Mark Pope explains how his program will benefit from playing elite programs like Duke and Kentucky in the first two days of the season.

Arriving in Lexington

The Wolverines left their locker room Thursday morning in Orem, Utah for Provo Airport, where they boarded the first chartered flight in the history of the school’s athletic department along with school administrators, boosters and fans.

Sophomore guard Jake Toolson and the Utah Valley Wolverines fly to Lexington for the team’s opener against the Kentucky Wildcats on Friday.

After a nearly three-hour flight, it was off the plane, onto the bus and straight to Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, where UVU’s players and coaches practiced and familiarized themselves with the historic venue.

The Wolverines practice at Rupp Arena.

UVU assistant coach Eric Daniels says it’s impossible to simulate Kentucky’s size and length in practice.

After checking in to the team hotel, the team met with the rest of the travel party at The Kentucky Castle. The restaurant’s manager (a Kentucky alumnus) dubbed Pope an official “knight of the castle” and presented him with a ceremonial sword.

Coach Mark Pope addresses Wolverine fans and boosters at The Castle in Versailles, Kentucky, one night before the team’s challenging two-game stretch begins.

Finally, a late-night film study session awaited the team back at the hotel, where assistant coaches went in-depth on the game plan for Kentucky.

The Wolverines watch film in preparation for Kentucky.

Falling short to Kentucky

The Wolverines didn’t appear intimidated by the nearly 20,000 fans who turned out for Kentucky’s season opener. UVU led for much of the first half and carried a nine-point advantage into halftime locker room.

The UVU Wolverines arrive at Rupp Arena.

A look inside The visitor’s locker room at Rupp Arena.

Matthew Holland, president at UVU, addresses the team at halftime, with the Wolverines holding a nine-point lead.

The Wolverines take the floor for the second half at Rupp Arena with a nine-point lead.

The deficit forced Kentucky to play zone defense, something Pope acknowledged he hadn’t worked with much, which fueled an 18-0 run for the Wildcats that helped them put the game away.

The Wolverines leave the floor following a 73-63 loss to Kentucky.

UVU’s locker room after falling to Kentucky in its season opener.

UVU coach Mark Pope addressed his team following its 73-63 loss to Kentucky. The Wolverines led by nine at halftime.

UVU’s performance caught the attention of Kentucky coach John Calipari, who called out Pope in his postgame news conference, then took the time to meet with the former Wildcat.

Kentucky coach John Calipari says that he’s been keeping an eye on UK alumnus Mark Pope and likes what he’s been doing with UVU’s program.

UVU sophomore guard Jake Toolson recaps last night’s loss to Kentucky.

Attention turns to Duke

Following Friday’s 73-63 loss at Kentucky, the team took a one-hour flight from Lexington to Raleigh that landed just before 1 a.m. After some much-needed rest, breakfast at the team’s Durham hotel preceded the Wolverines’ first look at Duke’s legendary Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The Wolverines roll up to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium for shoot around in advance of Saturday’s game.

Former Blue Devil Shane Battier, who was a teammate of assistant coach Chris Burgess’ in the late 1990s, welcomed his friend back to campus by addressing the team and wishing them luck (but not too much luck). The Wolverines trailed by 15 at halftime and lost by a final score of 99-69, giving Mike Krzyzewski his 1,000th win at Duke.

Former Blue Devil Shane Battier is here to support former teammate and UVU assistant coach Chris Burgess.

UVU gets a taste of the Cameron Crazies during warm ups.

UVU center Akolda Manyang leads the Wolverines onto the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The Wolverines head out for the second half trailing Duke, 48-33.

UVU guard Kenneth Ogbe’s thoughts on what went wrong in Saturday’s loss to Duke and the Wolverine’s weekend as a whole,

UVU coach Mark Pope on what he learned about his team after losses to Kentucky and Duke.

Assistant coach Eric Daniels recaps the “toughest 24” from the airport before heading back to Orem, Utah.


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