LARAMIE — The Fresno State Bulldogs are currently on a five-game winning streak, the longest in the Mountain West.
“They’re just playing the best basketball in the league right now,” Wyoming men’s basketball coach Allen Edwards said.
That’s not great news for the Cowboys. The last time Wyoming played Fresno State (20-8 overall, 10-5 Mountain West), the Bulldogs were on a two-game losing streak and sitting in seventh place in the conference. Still, they handed the Cowboys an 80-62 beating Feb. 3 in Laramie.
Now, Wyoming gets to face third-place Fresno State in Fresno, California, in desperate need of a win (8 p.m., ESPNU).
“I wouldn’t say anything changed,” Edwards said of the Bulldogs. “... I think it spearheaded from our first meeting, to where they’ve just turned it up. A little bit more committed on the defensive end of the floor, and I think they just have a great balance of interior players with perimeter players.”
The good news for the Cowboys is that they likely will have a player returning to the starting lineup. Ailing from the flu, senior forward Alan Herndon came off the bench for Wyoming in its 119-114 home loss to New Mexico on Tuesday, playing just 7 minutes. Considering the Bulldogs’ physical style of play, a productive Herndon could be key to Wyoming pulling out a win Saturday.
“Well, I could care less about their size,” Edwards said. “It’s just important to get him back on the floor, because of how much he means to what we’re doing, especially on the defensive end of the floor. We’ve had some rest. Probably wouldn’t practice (Thursday) as well, but I would assume he’ll be fine for the Fresno State.”
Herndon is third all-time in Wyoming history in blocked shots and is on pace to hold the Wyoming record for most games played.
“We missed him defensively and offensively on both sides,” Wyoming senior Hayden Dalton said. “He’s a big help, just his presence being in there, the other team knowing what he does shot-block wise being in there, he helps out a ton. So, we really missed him. Hopefully he can get healthy for this next game.”
But while Wyoming hopes Herndon can return to the starting lineup, another starter will be unavailable. Freshman Hunter Maldonado suffered an ankle injury and will be out Saturday. His status is day-to-day after that, per Wyoming athletics.
Maldonado has started every conference game this season, as well as four non-conference games. Prior to Tuesday, when Andrew Moemeka started for Herndon, the Cowboys had used the same starting lineup for every Mountain West game.
That loss to the Lobos put a big dent in Wyoming’s hopes of a first-round bye at next month’s Mountain West tournament, which is given to the top five teams in the final standings. A win would have given Wyoming sole possession of fourth place in the conference. Still, the Cowboys (17-11, 8-7) find themselves in a three-way tie for fifth place, along with UNLV and San Diego State.
San Diego plays Saturday at last-place San Jose State, and UNLV plays Sunday at New Mexico. Two of Wyoming’s remaining three games, including Saturday’s, come on the road against top-three Mountain West teams.
“That’s a big point of emphasis right now,” Dalton said of earning a bye, “just so we don’t have to play on that first day. It just gives us more of an advantage.”
But if the Cowboys hope to help their cause at Fresno State, they’ll need a better effort than the one they gave Feb. 3 in Laramie.
“We weren’t really in-tune with each other,” senior Lou Adams said of that loss. “We were out there doing things that we don’t really normally do, defensive mistakes, defensive breakdowns, not rebounding. So it was nothing they really did that we didn’t expect. It was just us not coming out playing hard and doing the things we need to do.”
Sophomore forward Nate Grimes, one of five Bulldogs in double figures, scored a career-high 20 points in the game. The Cowboys made just 35.8 percent of their shots in the loss, their worst mark in conference play. It was Wyoming’s most lopsided conference loss under Edwards.
“I think they had a bunch of points in the paint, their guards and bigs,” Dalton said. “So it wasn’t just the guards or the bigs. It was all of us just letting them in the paint. So, definitely just putting an emphasis on that, staying in front.”