LARAMIE — The wait for Hunter Thompson is nearly over.
That is as long as there aren’t any setbacks.
All Thompson has been able to do during Wyoming’s last five games is watch after taking an accidental shot to the face during the second half of the Cowboys’ season-opening loss to UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 6. It left Wyoming’s freshman big with a concussion that the Cowboys’ training staff initially feared also gave Thompson a broken jaw.
“I don’t necessarily remember walking off the court, but I just remember kind of being surrounded by all my teammates and that I had a pretty bad nosebleed,” Thompson said.
X-rays came back negative, but the injury further depleted a frontcourt that’s already without senior forward Jordan Naughton (knee) with Thompson needing some time to go through concussion protocol. He reached baseline before the Cowboys (2-4) left for Florida two weeks ago to play in the Fort Myers Tip-Off, but with the team not wanting to take the chance of Thompson’s symptoms resurfacing on a cross-country flight, he again watched from afar as Wyoming lost to Boston College before rallying for a 68-66 win over Richmond its last time out to snap a two-game skid.
“It’s been frustrating (to not play), but it’s been also I think a good break for me to kind of see what I need to bring for the team,” Thompson said. “But it was very frustrating just to see the guys not necessarily struggle but kind of lack that big-game presence in the middle.”
Thompson is set to fill that void when Wyoming travels to Indiana on Wednesday to take on Evansville as part of the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Conference Challenge. The 6-foot-11, 235-pounder went through a full-contact practice Monday and is on track to return to the rotation against the Purple Aces (2-3), who lost at Ball State over the weekend.
“Just happy to see him out on the floor to be honest with you,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “We’ll see (Tuesday), but as of right now, he should be fine.”
The obvious areas Wyoming could use Thompson’s help are on the defensive end with rebounding and rim protection, though those aren’t necessarily his strong suits. That’s on the other end of the floor, where Thompson’s inside-out ability lent itself to 10 points on 4 of 6 shooting in just 15 minutes for the Pine Bluffs native against UCSB before sustaining the injury.
Still, there’s a ways to go, he admitted, to refine his offensive game.
“Probably a little more improvement on my perimeter game and shooting the 3-ball a little better,” Thompson said. “Just kind making my reads better offensively and just kind of looking for open teammates so I can get the ball into the post, the cutter or the open guy setting a flare screen or whatever it may be.”
Edwards said he’s not sure how many minutes Thompson will get in his first game in more than three weeks, but Wyoming will need his defensive presence just as much when he’s on the floor. The Cowboys will stick primarily with the 2-3 zone it’s played with Thompson and Naughton out in order to try to limit foul trouble, Edwards said, though the Cowboys may switch up their defensive looks more than usual against an Evansville team that’s shooting 41 percent from 3-point range.
Shea Feehan, a transfer from Division III Eureka College, is the Purple Aces’ most consistent threat from deep with a 47-percent clip from beyond the arc. Evansville also has some size and athleticism in the frontcourt with Dainius Chatkevicius (6-9), Evan Kuhlman (6-8) and John Hall, a 6-7, 215-pound wing that’s averaging 10.2 points and a team-best 6.8 rebounds.
Wyoming’s undersized lineup had no answer for the last big it saw in Richmond’s Grant Golden, who almost single handedly willed the Spiders to a win over Wyoming with a career-high 33 points on 16 of 24 shooting. It’s one of the handful of areas Thompson should be able to offer some assistance now that he’s back in the fold.
“I just think defensively obviously to guard their big guys and to eliminate the big guys to allow our guards to get rebounds,” Thompson said. “Other than that, have an inside scoring presence to open up the floor for all of our shooters. Mainly just to bring a big, physical body back in to take the relief off of Austin (Mueller) and Hunter (Maldonado) trying to play the 5-spot.”