It has finally arrived, folks. The first game of the college basketball season for the University of Kentucky Wildcats is tonight, and we finally get to see this new batch of Wildcats play in a game that counts. The first opponent on the long road to March? The Utah Valley University Wolverines, who have coined their weekend as the “Toughest 24 Hours in College Basketball History.”
Calling the start to your season the toughest 1 day span in the history of college basketball is a bold claim, but after taking a glance at the Wolverine schedule, I can’t blame them for the claim. Utah Valley comes to Rupp Arena tonight, then heads to Cameron Indoor Stadium to take on Duke exactly 24 hours later. Two top 5 teams on back to back days to start the season is an absolutely unheard of task.
Head coach of UVU is former Wildcat Mark Pope, in his third year as head coach of the Wolverines. Pope played two seasons at UK where he averaged just shy of 8 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game. He moved on to play 9 total seasons in the NBA, spread out with the Pacers, Bucks, and Nuggets.
Let’s take a look at the potential starting lineup for Coach Pope’s squad:
#0 Akolda Manyang, Senior Center, 7’0″
Akolda Manyang sat out all of last season due to NCAA transfer rules, but played the previous season for the Sooners at Oklahoma where he was playing just 8 minutes per game. Manyang was dismissed from the Oklahoma after being involved in two separate legal incidents. The first involved allegedly punching an Oklahoma football player, while the second was getting arrested for first-degree aggravated robbery.
Nothing like starting out real competition with one of the largest players that the Cats will face all season. Manyang will be the first time these young Kentucky big men go up against Division I talent, and it will certainly be a test. In UVU’s recent exhibition win over Dixie State, the seven-footer finished with 19 points, 10 boards, 3 blocks, and a steal in just 21 minutes of action. The big fella hit 7 of 10 free throws as well, which gives even more reason that Kentucky will need to defend well and without fouling.
The Minnesota native is one of two towering big men for the Wolverines. Depending on who gets the starting nod from Coach Cal, I think most likely Manyang matches up with any number of Nick Richards, Sacha Killeya-Jones, and PJ Washington.
#11 Conner Toolson, Junior Guard, 6’4″
Conner Toolson returns as the starting two-guard for Coach Pope, starting the majority of the games last season. Toolson started his career at Salt Lake Community College, where he led the team to NJCAA National Championship and scored 28 points in the championship game.
Last season, Toolson was the leading scorer for a very balanced Wolverine squad, scoring 11.9 points per game to go along with 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and a team leading 1.1 steals. The junior shot 31.8% from three point land and 74.5% from the charity stripe.
At the shooting guard position, Toolson matches up with Kentucky pseudo-sophomore Hamidou Diallo. While Toolson may have the edge in experience on the court, I’d think that his list of advantages in this matchup doesn’t go much longer. Diallo’s elite athleticism, coupled with the large talent gap, makes this an opportunity for Hami to start out his season on a solid note. Look for Diallo to use his length and speed to give Toolson fits on both ends of the floor.
#3 Brandon Randolph, Senior Guard, 6’2″
Brandon Randolph is in his second year as the starting floor general for the Wolverines. Similar to Toolson, he started the majority of the games last season after transferring to UVU from another program. Randolph played two seasons at Xavier, but never managed to play more than a few minutes per game.
The point guard in Mark Pope’s offense, Randolph returns as the leading assist man from last season, averaging 3.9 per contest. He was one of four starters scoring in double figures with 10 points a game. Despite being the shortest player on the roster, Randolph was the second leading rebounder on the team with 5.1 per game. Where Randolph struggles is ball security and long range shooting. He turned the ball over 3.2 times per game last season, and shot 27% from 3.
Randolph will most certainly match up with UK’s Quade Green in the battle of point guards. Green struggled on the defensive end in the exhibition games, most notably with keeping his man in front of him. Randolph’s experience with running the offense will be a good early test for Green. On the flip side of the ball, Green really impressed with his ability to find his teammates in space.
#22 Isaac Neilson, Senior Forward, 6’11”
A third returning starter for Coach Pope, Isaac Neilson was at the center position last season, but has moved over to the 4 this year. Before last season, Neilson played at BYU for a year, starting five games as a freshman. Neilson was named to the All-WAC Defensive team last season.
Isaac Neilson was a force in the paint last season, averaging almost a double-double on the season with 9.6 points and 9.1 rebounds. He blocked 1.6 shots per game last year. While he was stopping opponents from scoring in the paint on one end, he was filling it up in the paint on the other, shooting over 57% from the field on the year.
Alongside Akolda Manyang, Neilson is the second of the twin towers in the middle for the Wolverines. Standing at 6’11” and 245 pounds, Neilson will be a load to handle for these young Cats. I think the matchup that makes the most sense for Kentucky would be to match up PJ Washington with Neilson, as Washington is most likely the strongest player in the post at this point for the Wildcats.
#2 Jake Toolson, Sophomore Guard, 6’5″
The fifth and final starter for the Wolverines is newcomer Jake Toolson, no relation to fellow starter Connor. Toolson sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, after playing two years at BYU. Toolson is the nephew of Boston Celtics great and current General Manager, Danny Ainge.
Toolson started in the exhibition win over Dixie College, but didn’t contribute a ton in the stat columns. He finished with 3 points, 3 assists, and 2 rebounds. But also had five fouls and four turnovers. His struggles in his first game for Utah Valley aren’t indicative of his overall talent level, but it doesn’t bode well for his matchup against the swingmen that Kentucky will put on the floor.
The sophomore looks like he will most likely start at the 3, meaning that he will match up with Kevin Knox. This is the matchup that Kentucky will most likely look to exploit early and often. Knox measures at 6’9″, 215 pounds, while Toolson is only 6’5″ and 205 pounds. Knox should be able to score both inside and out on most defenders this season, so tonight seems like a great game to start.
While Utah Valley comes to town for the first game of the season as the round one of their “Toughest 24 Hours in College Basketball History”, don’t think that they won’t be ready to put up a fight in Rupp Arena. As most of these smaller schools do, they’ll most likely be pumped up at a shot at playing against one of the best teams in the country. I think the real question about tonight’s game is whether or not the talented UK freshmen will be able to handle the size of the two starting post players for the Wolverines.
Go Cats. Beat Wolverines.