David Becker | Associated Press file photo Utah Valley coach Mark Pope, giving instructions during last season’s Western Athletic Conference tournament, says playing a tough nonconference shedule will help his team improve.
The matchup at Kentucky will be UVU’s first game against the Wildcats. Last season, Kentrucky finished 32-6 and ranked fifth in the coaches poll. The Wildcats made an Elite Eight appearance in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, falling to the eventual champion North Carolina, 75-73. Kentucky has made it to the Final Four 15 times and has won eight national titles, the latest being in 2012.
While Utah Valley hasn’t played the Wildcats before, Pope is familiar with Kentucky. He played for the ‘Cats and helped them earn a national title in 1996.
Duke finished 28-9 last season and made its 22nd consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. The Blue Devils entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed and fell to South Carolina in the second round. Led by Mike Krzyzewski, Duke has won five NCAA national titles. Krzyzewski is entering his 38th season with Duke and is just two wins away of his 1,000th with the Blue Devils.
The game against Duke will be a homecoming for UVU assistant coach Chris Burgess, who played for Coach K and the Blue Devils from 1997 to ’99. While he was there he helped Duke earn an Elite Eight appearance in 1998 and a run to the national title game in 1999.
Utah Valley is heading into these contests with eight returning players who saw significant time last season including Conner Toolson, who led UVU in scoring, averaging 11.9 points per game. In addition to Toolson, four other top scorers will be returning as well as five top rebounders from the 2016-17 season.