If I’m being honest, I was surprised.
When the preseason poll was released at the Mountain West Men’s Basketball Media Summit in Las Vegas last month and I saw Wyoming was picked to finish seventh in the league, I thought I’d see the Cowboys lower in the pecking order.
What that prediction showed more than anything was the amount of respect media that cover the league have for Justin James, a bonafide star and a legit player-of-the-year candidate in the MW. Wyoming’s do-it-all senior guard tested the NBA Draft waters after last season but ultimately decided to come back for one more season in Laramie. His return gives a boost to a team that went 20-13 a season ago with a 10-8 mark in conference play, which was good enough for a sixth-place finish in the MW.
But Wyoming did that with James, Hayden Dalton and Alan Herndon — all double-figure scorers for the Cowboys a season ago. James is the only one back, leaving third-year coach Allen Edwards to try to replace more than half of Wyoming’s scoring and rebounding with a roster that doesn’t have anybody else returning that averaged more than 5.3 points and 2.2 rebounds. The Cowboys’ inexperience far outweighs their experience with 62 percent of their scholarship players being newcomers.
In other words, it’s James and a bunch of dudes for the time being. And it makes Wyoming perhaps the biggest wild card in the MW this season.
Maybe James is good enough to carry the Cowboys to a third straight 20-win season and hopes of the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015. The 6-foot-7, 192-pounder is about as complete a player as you’re going to find with his 18.9 points, six rebounds and 3.1 assists per game while shooting a career-best 47.2 percent from the field last season. He was even better in league play, averaging 20.8 points against conference foes.
Don’t want to take the stats or my word for it? Here’s what players and coaches around the league had to say about the sole reason they’re not necessarily buying this being a rebuilding season for the Cowboys.
“First of all you’re starting with one of the best players in the league, and then they do a great job coaching them,” Boise State coach Leon Rice opined. “I think they’ll be really good to tell you the truth.”
Said Fresno State guard Deshon Taylor: “He can get to the basket anytime he wants. He can score at any time. He’s real athletic, so trying to stay in front of him is probably the most difficult assignment.”
“When you have a player that good, you can beat anybody,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said.
Said Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich simply, “He’s a gamechanger.”
But James will need some help in order for the Cowboys to get to where they’re trying to go, and there’s no shortage of options.
Hunter Maldonado, the only other returning starter, will be expected to improve on those 5.3 points and 2.2 rebounds he averaged last year as a freshman, while seniors Jordan Naughton and Nyaires Redding have been around a while. Everybody’s waiting to see what Pine Bluffs native and former four-star signee Hunter Thompson, a 6-10 forward who redshirted last season because of an injury, can do now that he’s healthy.
There’s also a handful of newcomers that have turned heads in practice. Jake Hendricks has been dealing with a wrist injury but has a pure stroke from deep when he’s healthy. He set the record at the College of Southern Idaho for career made 3-pointers. Point guard A.J. Banks and forward Lwal Dung have drawn rave reviews with their athleticism and playmaking ability while freshmen Tariq Johnson and Bradley Belt, at 6-5 and 6-4, respectively, are in the mold of bigger guards that Edwards covets.
Unless you’re one of the rare lucky ones that’s returning your starting five intact, every team takes time to gel. Edwards knows what he’s going to get from James just about every night. What about the unknowns?
So maybe Wyoming finishes seventh in the MW. Maybe the Cowboys end up being worse. Or better.
Edwards summed it up perfectly during his time in Vegas.
“At the end of the day, that’s why we play the games,” he said. “That’s why we have a season.”