LARAMIE — If Allen Edwards is feeling pressure ahead of this season, he’s keeping it to himself.
Edwards is entering his fourth season at the helm of Wyoming’s men’s basketball program, and there’s no doubt it’s the most pivotal. The Cowboys officially began practice last week in preparation for their Nov. 5 opener against Idaho State as they try to move on from one of the worst seasons in program history. Wyoming’s eight wins last season were its fewest since winning four during the 1973-74 season, and only San Jose State, which has combined for just two conference wins the last two seasons, finished lower than the Cowboys in the Mountain West standings.
The dropoff was significant compared to Edwards’ first two seasons at the helm when he led Wyoming to back-to-back 20-win seasons and a CBI championship. Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman called the eight-win season unacceptable and said “dramatic improvement” is needed this season, though he declined to give a specific win total.
But Edwards said shortly after last season he didn’t view his situation as a pressurized one and reiterated that this week.
“As we’re moving forward and coming off a season where we won eight and understanding that even within that eight, our guys never quit,” Edwards said. “They always came out with the mindset of playing hard and competing regardless of what the score was. Even if you look at everything else within what we do in our program, you can’t look at our program and say it’s derailed. Our kids in the program, even if you talk to them, are committed to what we’re doing here. Academically we do what we need to do.
“It’s not just basketball at the end of the day, so I don’t buy into this pressure thing at the end of the day. I think that’s a storyline for the chat rooms and everybody else. It’s no different than watching TV. One week, you’re great. The next week, you’re horrible. At some point, you’ve just got to go and play basketball.”
The Cowboys’ ability to do that at a high level last season was hindered by mass attrition. Six players, including second-leading scorer and rebounder Hunter Maldonado, missed all or part of the season because of injuries, suspensions or decisions to leave the team, whittling Wyoming’s rotation to seven scholarship players at one point. Four of them were freshmen.
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“I’m a person that always likes to find the jewel in everything, and when you’re going through scenarios and situations, I think the worst thing you can do is pity yourself during that process,” Edwards said. “The only way you can get out of it is to continue to work and stay committed to your vision.”
Jake Hendricks, A.J. Banks and Pine Bluffs native Hunter Thompson are back as returning starters, but this year’s team is still on the younger side. Hendricks and Banks are the only seniors on the roster and make up half of the Cowboys’ upperclassmen.
Then there’s the task of replacing all the production left behind by all-everything guard Justin James, who finished his career No. 3 on the program’s all-time scoring list before being taken in the second round of this year’s NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings. Sophomore forward Austin Mueller and Maldonado, who averaged 13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in the eight games he played, are fully recovered from season-ending injuries. Junior college transfer Greg Milton III is competing with Banks at the point while true freshman guard Kenny Foster, Colorado’s Gatorade Player of the Year last season, is among five newcomers in the mix for immediate minutes.
Wyoming is going through practice relatively healthy. Freshman big Javier Turner sustained a concussion recently while Hendricks is dealing with a sprain, though neither is expected to miss significant time as the Cowboys embark on a season they’re counting on to have a far better ending.
“It’s behind us now,” Edwards said. “We’re looking to move on.”
Wyoming will host Northwest Nazarene, a Division II school, in an exhibition Oct. 30 before Idaho State visits the Arena-Auditorium.