For the past two seasons, the Utah Valley Wolverines have featured arguably the best big man in the country in Fardaws Aimaq. There is no disputing that.
Now, Aimaq has moved on to Texas Tech to finish up his collegiate career. Big Maple earned that right after averaging 16.9 points and 14.2 rebounds for the Wolverines. Being a two-time WAC Defensive Player of the Year helps as does a Player of the Year award and a share of the conference title.
So, you can see, losing Aimaq is a big deal in the minds of many.
What people don’t realize is that Utah Valley played nearly all of 2021-22 without Trey Woodbury. The Las Vegas native was an All-WAC First Team selection in 2020-21. And led the Wolverines in scoring in that same season. A knee injury a few days before the 2021-22 season started kept Woodbury out of the rotation until he surprised everyone at WAC Vegas.
Along those lines, Justin Harmon missed seven weeks with a hand injury after helping Utah Valley knock off then-No. 12 BYU on Dec. 1.
Utah Valley returns three of five starters from a 20-win squad. It could go that the Wolverines return four starters. Because, let’s face it, Trey Woodbury would have been starting had he not been injured. The Wolverines also return nearly their entire bench. Trey Farrer is the lone departure.
But, with that being said, Mark Madsen went out and got two transfers that will have a significant impact.
Here is the breakdown.
Mark Madsen, fourth season
Lost to Abilene Christian in second round of WAC Tournament
Fardaws Aimaq – Transfer to Texas Tech
Connor Harding – Graduation
Trey Farrer – Transfer to Westminster
Tahj Small 6-5, Sr., G – Transfer (Tarleton)
Aziz Bandaogo 7-0, So., C Transfer (Akron)
Cam Alford 6-1, Jr., G Transfer (JUCO)
Cache Fields 6-6, Jr., G Transfer (JUCO)
Ethan Potter 6-8, Fr., F Layton High School, Layton, Utah
Justin Harmon 6-4, Jr., G
Le’Tre Darthard 6-4, Jr., G
Tim Ceaser 6-9, Jr., F
Blaze Nield 6-1, Sr., G
Trey Woodbury 6-4, Sr., G
Tim Fuller 6-9, Jr., F
Jaden McClanahan 5-10, Jr., G
Jordan Battle 6-2, So., G
Yes, Utah Valley loses two of its top-3 scorers from 2021-22. But, they also get 15.6 points back. And out of the portal get 13.8 points. Trey Woodbury is back. And Mark Madsen got a steal with Tarleton transfer Tahj Small choosing to come to Orem to finish out his senior season.
In 2020-21, Woodbury shot 47 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from 3-point range. His 15.6 points were tied with JJ Overton for the team lead. Woodbury also average 4.0 rebounds.
Small averaged 13.8 points and 5.6 reJustin bounds per game for the Texans in 2021-22. And in his two seasons in Stephenville, Small averaged 12.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
So, Utah Valley now has two guards that can score off the bounce. Or that can knock down a shot from the perimeter. Add in Justin Harmon who can attack the rim, as well.
But, Utah Valley has even more in Blaze Nield who started every game for the Wolverines in 2021-22. Le’Tre Darthard started 26 of 28 contests and averaged 9.8 points while shooting 40 percent from the perimeter. Jaden McClanahan was sometimes the first off the bench.
And Madsen also added JUCO transfer Cam Alford to his already deep rotation of guards.
The WAC is a guard-heavy league so why not have plenty of them?
In Woodbury and Small, Madsen has two reliable guards who he can put the ball in their hands at the end of ball games. That was a big struggle at times in 2021-22. Having that guard that could take someone off the dribble, draw a foul or hit a big shot with the shot clock running down. Woodbury and/or Small can do all of that.
Issues in the Paint?
People may believe there will be a significant drop off in production in the paint. How do you replace a guy that averaged over 14 rebounds per game? You can’t. And it is safe to say that Mark Madsen doesn’t necessarily expect someone to replicate what Fardaws Aimaq did.
But, as a big guy himself, Madsen knows how to develop big men. Don’t look any further than Aimaq. But if you do, look at Eman Olojakpoke from the 2019-20 squad. Big, long, athletic. And a rim protector. Olojakpoke set the Utah Valley single-season record for blocks with 81. Yes, 81 blocks in 30 games.
And all Madsen did in the offseason is go and bring in another Olojakpoke-type player. 7-footer Aziz Bandaogo from Akron will be the rim protector for the Wolverines. The good news for Utah Valley fans is Bandaogo is a little more fine-tuned offensively than Olojakpoke was. With his size, length and athleticism, Bandaogo will play an immediate role for the Wolverines.
And if that is not an issue for opponents, Madsen also has Tim Fuller and Tim Ceaser back.
Fuller is the physical presence in the lane. He is the epitome of his head coach in the way he plays the game. Tough, hard-nosed, out-working his opponents. And every once in a while showing off some well-hidden athleticism.
Ceaser is a role player that can have an immediate impact on a game. It’s all about the mentality and focus. With his length and athleticism, and his ability to shoot the basketball, Ceaser could be a diamond in the rough for the Wolverines in 2022-23.
The Wolverines open up the 2022-23 season at Utah State on Nov. 7. Utah Valley has lost 13 straight to the Aggies. So, there is a lot at stake. It is potentially a Quad I opportunity, an opportunity for a road win, and an opportunity for bragging rights over an in-state foe.
Utah Valley also has road games at BYU, at Wake Forest, at Oregon and Boise State on the schedule. The Wolverines play a home-and-home series with Northern Arizona and also host Big West regular season champion Long Beach State.
Utah Valley opens WAC play with a pair of home games against Sam Houston and in-state rival Utah Tech.