LARAMIE — Allen Edwards has watched his seven-man rotation play together for nine games now. He knows they’re going to cough the ball up.
But Wyoming’s coach also knows there has to be a limit to how often the Cowboys turn it over if they’re going to be competitive for the full 40 minutes.
“I would love to be somewhere like 10 or 11 (turnovers per game),” Edwards said. “I think if we start getting to 12 and up, that’s a little bit too much.”
It’s been too much for Wyoming all season.
Protecting the ball is taking on even more importance for the Cowboys given how much they’ve slowed down their offense. In order to get a blow for the players Wyoming has left in what’s been a season affected by mass attrition, the Cowboys use almost the entire 30 seconds of the shot clock on most possessions, ranking 139th nationally in adjusted offensive tempo, according to kenpom.com.
That means fewer possessions over the course of a game, but Wyoming is costing itself many of those with turnovers that are occurring at an alarming rate.
The Cowboys’ 14.7 turnovers a game are tied with New Mexico for the second-most in the Mountain West. It’s been even worse against league competition for the Cowboys, who are averaging 16.7 turnovers in MW play. San Jose State, which still doesn’t have a conference win, is the only team in the league turning it over more.
“The possessions are more magnified and the turnovers are more magnified, especially when you’re playing slow,” freshman wing TJ Taylor said. “Coach wants us to play in the 60s, and guys just aren’t used to that yet with us playing fast all our lives.”
There also aren’t many true ball handlers left in Wyoming’s rotation with Justin James and A.J. Banks being the only available guards, though Jake Hendricks is close to returning from his knee injury. Taylor is one of four freshmen in the rotation often handling the ball, a level of inexperience that doesn’t always come with the best decision making.
There’s the occasional dribble off the foot or other self-inflicted mishap, but the Cowboys know they’re not doing themselves any favors by making lazy passes or forcing passes that aren’t there.
“We tend to make a home-run play every now and then, but I think we need to shy away from that and focus more on playing simple,” Taylor said. “Probably more grade-school passes instead of throwing lobs and trying to make the flashy plays.”
The Cowboys’ lopsided scores haven’t helped. Not only have all seven of Wyoming’s league losses come by double digits, but the Cowboys have lost them by more than 21 points on average.
Wyoming has fallen behind quickly more times than not, facing double-digit deficits in the first half in four of those games. Some of them have come within the first 10 minutes, which has made the Cowboys feel like they need to force the issue in order to get back in the game.
As a result, the Cowboys speed up the tempo and get out of control at times. That was most recently on display two games ago against Boise State when Wyoming scored just 14 first-half points and trailed by 14 at the break en route to a season-high 24 turnovers in a 25-point loss.
“The Boise State game, my thing to them was I felt like we got too caught up on the score in the sense of we weren’t scoring,” Edwards said. “I’m like, ‘That doesn’t matter to me right now.’ We have to stay locked in on the defensive end of the floor and understand we’re trying to win ugly.
Said freshman forward Hunter Thompson, “I just think it’s a little bit of youth and I think we might get a little too quick to press the panic button when we go down by 10.”
Wyoming committed 17 turnovers Wednesday against Fresno State, which forces more turnovers than any team in the MW on a per-game basis with its full-court pressure. Yet nearly all of them came in the half court with more lackadaisical passes and loose ball handling.
Wyoming turned it over nine times in the second half, helping spark a decisive 20-4 run that turned a tie game into a 75-62 victory for the Bulldogs, who have combined with Boise State and San Jose State to score 50 points off Wyoming’s turnovers the last three games.
It’s a sloppy trend that can’t continue if the Cowboys want to stay in games. At least not at this rate.
“It’s not going to be pretty,” Edwards said. “I said to the guys that in some cases, some may say it’s a boring style of play, but that’s what we have to do if we’re going to put ourselves in position to win.”