LARAMIE — Nobody likes being uncomfortable. For a Wyoming team with four freshmen and five first-time Division I players in its rotation, that’s especially true.
Which makes the next task in the Cowboys’ trying season a tall one.
Wyoming will return to the Arena-Auditorium on Wednesday to take on Fresno State, which is better than anybody in the Mountain West at getting opponents out of their comfort zone. The Bulldogs, who begin the week just a game back of Nevada atop the league standings, do it with a defense that pressures the length of the court and forces 14.4 turnovers per game — tops in the MW.
The Bulldogs also rank in the top 3 of the league in points allowed, field-goal percentage defense and 3-point field-goal percentage defense.
“I think Fresno is different from anybody that we’ve played up to this point with what they do, which creates a problem for us in a sense of their pressure and pressing in the full court but also in the halfcourt,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said.
It’s a matchup that heavily favors Fresno State on paper given Wyoming’s season-long issues holding on to the ball. With junior college transfer A.J. Banks and freshmen Trace Young and TJ Taylor being the Cowboys’ primary ball handlers outside of Justin James, only New Mexico, Air Force and last-place San Jose State have been worse in the league at turning it over than Wyoming, which is coughing it up 14.6 times per game.
It’s been even worse for the Cowboys against MW opponents. Wyoming is averaging nearly 17 turnovers in league play after committing a season-high 24 turnovers Saturday in a 25-point loss at Boise State. Even its win over SJSU last Wednesday, Wyoming turned it over 16 times and has given up 41 points off turnovers the last two games.
So if the Cowboys haven’t been able to handle marginal defensive pressure from the teams they’ve already played, how do they go about trying to keep their composure and execute against a team that may be more relentless than anybody they’ve faced to this point?
“My thing to them is it’s not going to be perfect,” Edwards said. “We’ve got to do our best job of trying to simulate it and mixing it up with certain guys taking the ball out and getting the ball in certain guys’ hands. But I think the biggest thing is spacing the floor. If they’re trapping and have two guys on the ball, we’ve got to have a guy behind him, a guy in the middle and a guy over the top to where the steal guys won’t be able to cover two guys at one time. Spacing is going to be huge and then just being strong with the basketball.”
Wyoming will have to play some defense of its own. Paced by the dynamic backcourt duo of New Mexico State transfer Braxton Huggins (18.2 points per game) and preseason all-MW selection Deshon Taylor (16.6), Fresno State is fifth in the league in scoring (76.2) and second in 3-point field goal percentage (37.3).
The Bulldogs have a third double-figure scorer in forward Nate Grimes (11.9), who’s also third in the league in rebounding (9.3) and second in blocked shots (1.8). Edwards said his team will have to pick and choose its spots to attack a rim protector like Grimes even when it does break Fresno State’s fullcourt press.
But the Cowboys will first have to show they can effectively handle all the pressure the Bulldogs will throw at them in order to give themselves a realistic chance.
“This will just be a different challenge for our group getting ready for Fresno,” Edwards said.