LARAMIE — With four seniors in the mix, it was expected that there would be significant turnover between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 Wyoming men’s basketball teams.
But the number of departures from that team has since doubled, with Anthony Mack, Andrew Moemeka, Buddah Jones and Cody Kelley all planning to transfer. Still, despite those losses — with potentially more to come, depending on Justin James’ decision regarding the NBA — Allen Edwards is not preparing for a rebuilding year.
“I think at the end of the day when you look at the landscape of college basketball right now, we’re talking about over 700, 800 kids each year doing this (transferring),” said Edwards, who has gone 43-28 in two years as Wyoming’s head coach. “And I don’t think it’s being done in selfish manners. I think they’re trying to do what’s best at the end of the day. But, with that being said, I’m excited about going forward because of the young men we’re bringing in, the core and myself as the head coach putting the final stamp on it.
“I feel better about the young men that I feel fit me more. I think the unique thing about this situation was I was promoted within and had good relationships with the young men, but we did play a different style from (previous head coach Larry) Shyatt. And some kids fit in well. Some kids were just OK in it. But now, it’s more me putting my final stamp on it and these guys understanding more of what I like as basketball players.”
Should James decide to forgo his senior season at Wyoming, the Cowboys will have lost more than 88 percent of its scoring production, more than 89 percent of its rebounding and more than 81 percent of its minutes played from last season. Still, Wyoming seemingly made a commitment to being competitive in Edwards’ third season by announcing a signing class Wednesday that didn’t include a single high school recruit.
“I am excited about this group,” Edwards said, “and how I look at it is you’ve got to look at the league as well. What everybody hasn’t realized is there’s transfers all over our league. You’re losing (Koby) McEwen from Utah State. San Jose State lost three (transfers). Fresno just lost a few. New Mexico lost a few. (Prentiss) Nixon, CSU lost Nixon and Nevada’s got guys that may or may not stay in the draft as well.
“... I wouldn’t use the term ‘rebuild.’ I think when you start thinking that way or saying that, then your team starts to believe in that and may not take things as seriously as they need to take it. Because at the end of the day, whether you are quote unquote ‘rebuilding’ or ‘restructuring’ or whatever, at the end of the day, you’ve got to play the game of basketball. So, we’re thinking more, ‘Let’s get out there and compete.’”
Edwards said that the only restrictions on the four Wyoming players who are transferring are that they can’t go to a Mountain West school, which is a league policy.
Tuesday, Kelley became the most recent player to announce his intent to leave. Kelley contributed off the bench as a redshirt freshman and wound up starting for Wyoming at point guard last season. The Gillette graduate said in a tweet Tuesday that he was hoping “to get the rest of my schooling paid for on scholarship” at a new school. Edwards said Wednesday that the walk-on retroactively received scholarship money for 2017-18, because the Cowboys had had one open scholarship for the season.
“So, this past season that he played, he got the money for it, but he just ended up getting it probably like two or three days ago, as far as the finances part,” Edwards said. “We sat down and it’s funny how things worked out, because there were conversations between the staff about putting him on scholarship, but when he spoke to me it was more about finding an institution that had a master’s degree in what he wanted to study.
“Because he said to me, ‘Coach, it’s not like I’m going to play professionally after this, so I’m thinking more about my future long-term.’ And you can’t knock a kid for that, at the end of the day. You can’t hold a kid back and say, ‘No, no, no, no. You have to.’ At the end of the day, I’m always in for what’s best for the kid.”
James making up mind
Wyoming still doesn’t know whether its leading scorer from last season is returning. James submitted his name for the NBA Draft but has not signed with an agent, which allows him to return as late as May 30. Edwards said there is interest in James as an NBA player.
“So it’s not like you’re looking at J.J. and saying, ‘What are you doing? You have no chance,’” Edwards said. “No, no, no. There’s interest from that level, and I think that this is a tremendous opportunity for him, because if for some reason, it’s not a first-round deal, they can tell him, ‘This is what we want or need for you to work on for you to be better playing at this level.’ So I think it’s a win-win for the kid, to be honest with you.”
The question remains how serious that interest is.
“If for some reason it happens and somebody’s telling him or a G.M. is saying, ‘We will take you with a first-round pick,’ you have to do it,” Edwards said. “My thing is, you coming back another year, ‘What, are you going to go from 21 to 14?’ It’s almost like (John) Calipari and Kentucky. ‘If you’re a top-5 pick, what are you coming back for? It makes no sense.’ But if not, and they’re saying, second round late, that makes no sense (to leave early), because the money ain’t guaranteed with a second-round pick.”
If James does leave, Wyoming will have just four returning scholarship players. One, Jordan Naughton, did not play in Wyoming’s final 19 games because of a back injury. Edwards said he had recently had a good conversation with Naughton about his situation.
“As you probably know, Jordan is a very quiet kid,” Edwards said. “Doesn’t talk a lot. And we’ve had multiple meetings to where I’ll probably talk for 15 minutes, and he nods his head and says, ‘OK, Coach.’ And walks out. Well, this last one was very good, because we conversed. So I felt like it was (a) breakthrough.
“Had a great conversation with his sister, and his sister is a former ballplayer as well, so the things I was communicating to her, she completely understood. And like she says, she’s like a second mom, rather than an older sister to Jordan, and she had some talking with Jordan, and he came in that next day. We sat down and he talked and we had a tremendous embrace, and I felt like there was progress.”
Edwards said he believes the latest developments with Naughton’s back have also been positive.
“He said he’s feeling a lot better,” Edwards said. “He’s moving around. He has a little bit more bounce in him. And he’s talking more, so that’s got to be a plus. Because my thing is, if he’s healthy, he’s one of the better bigs in this league, and that helps us going forward. If he’s not, then it hurts us. So we’re trying to do whatever’s possible to get him back on the floor. It’s not like we’re rushing him at all.”