Sometimes coaches say things just to sugarcoat, because there’s nothing positive to say and because being repeatedly negative is no fun for fans or for reporters or for the program itself. I never really got that sense with Allen Edwards this year.
To the very end, Edwards said that he liked his guys. He felt like they had a lot of potential, but they’d only played to it in spurts and if they could put it all together, they could be dangerous. Even as his team won consecutive Mountain West games a total of one time, he felt as though Wyoming could put a run together and be dangerous in the Mountain West tournament.
And I believed him. The Cowboys did look really good during stretches. They looked like a team that few in the conference could beat if they actually put together a complete 40 minutes. Granted, they hadn’t done that, but it’s March. March is weird, and you never know what will happen when a team begins tournament play.
Instead, March decided to be weird in the opposite direction. To say the Cowboys laid an egg at the Mountain West tournament would do a disservice to eggs. Wyoming spotted Air Force 25 points to start its opening game in Las Vegas. As much respect as we all have for the military, I’m not really sure that was a necessary gesture.
It was bad. What’s worse, the Pokes never even hinted at making some sort of miracle comeback. The closest they got was 15 points, and that was the final score. It was very bad, almost as bad of a game as you could play within the confines of a 15-point loss — especially against a team that you had handled fairly easily twice before.
But as bad as it was (again: very, very), Wyoming should not fire Edwards because of one game.
I almost feel like I’m creating a straw-man argument for the sake of a column, but then I remember my Twitter mentions. Plenty of Cowboys fans wanted to leave their coach in Sin City. I understand the frustration, especially if you were one of the many Wyoming fans to make the trek out to Las Vegas and were stuck either watching teams that don’t wear brown and gold for the rest of the week or rearranging travel plans. (It didn’t help that the women’s team was also upset in its first game.)
But come on.
I really don’t care what happens in one game; you don’t fire a coach because of one loss. “But 25-0!” Yes, I’m aware. I was there, and I was in as much disbelief as anyone. I was also in disbelief that they never staged a comeback. But one game is one game is one game.
And if you want to point to the rest of the season, go ahead and point. Let’s take a look. In Edwards’ first season as a head coach, his team won four more games and one more conference game than it had the year before. Its result in the conference tournament was the same: one and done to a lesser-seeded team. Improving a team’s record is not a fireable offense.
The Cowboys also exceeded expectations. They were picked to finish 10th. They finished seventh. Outplaying predictions is not a fireable offense.
“But Larry Shyatt left this team on a platter!” Shyatt definitely did Edwards a favor by sticking around a year and easing the transition after winning the 2015 Mountain West tournament. But the team still lost Josh Adams, the reigning conference player of the year and the nation’s third-leading scorer in 2016. That was going to take some getting used to, as was getting a group of players to take command after largely playing second and third fiddle to Adams.
“But Edwards doesn’t start his best players!” First off, Hayden Dalton and Justin James played the third- and fourth-most minutes on the team, respectively. Those are starter minutes. That doesn’t become not true just because they’re not on the floor at tip-off. Edwards liked how he could substitute with that duo coming off the bench and he didn’t like how they were careless with the basketball. Dalton started the tournament game, by the way. He had seven turnovers. James had six.
One remark that continues to baffle me is when a commenter complained that Edwards is “a puppet.” I genuinely do not understand what that person is talking about. A puppet, to me, would imply that Edwards is a coach only in name and that someone else (Tom Burman? Jeremy Shyatt? Pistol Pete?) is pulling the strings. But Edwards definitively and inarguably put his own imprint on the program with his up-tempo style. Personally, I think it’s a good choice. It seems to take advantage of guys like Dalton and Alan Herndon, not to mention the altitude, and the team played its best when it was playing Edwards’ style. But whether or not you like it, you can’t argue that he is a passive coach, simply sticking with the status quo.
Don’t get me wrong. This team wasn’t perfect — far from it. It was incredibly frustrating to watch as the team never found a remedy for its allergy to winning two straight games. Wednesday, the team looked like a team coached by a first-year head coach with players who weren’t accustomed to bearing the brunt of the postseason spotlight, and that’s a fair criticism. To his credit, Edwards owned it after the game:
“At the end of the day I’ll put it on me,” he said Wednesday. “I was the head coach and I felt like that wasn’t Poke basketball in the first 10 minutes of the game, and through stretches of the game.”
But overall, it isn’t fair to characterize this season as a failure, much less a fireable one. Plus, look at the future. This team is positioned to do big things next year. Wyoming only loses two seniors: one who had a down year and one who didn’t play much. The Cowboys will have a strong class of six seniors. And Edwards did nothing if not give a lot of guys floor time this season, which bodes well for next year.
Plus, there’s the great incoming class of recruits — perhaps the best thing Edwards has done since taking over. Expectations should rise. Edwards’ team improved this year. It will need to continue to do so over the next few years.
If it doesn’t, then you can start to question the warmth of his seat.
But not after one game.
Follow University of Wyoming athletics reporter Brandon Foster on Twitter @BFoster91