Growing up in basketball-crazed Kentucky, Trace Young always dreamed of playing in the Southeastern Conference.
Wyoming? He hardly knew it existed.
But as Young morphed into a Division I hoops prospect at North Hardin High in Owensboro and then Mount Zion Prep in Baltimore, his interests began to change. So did his game.
He was looking for a college that appealed to both, and Allen Edwards was searching for another player to fit the shape of his program. It was a match that ultimately led to Wyoming’s coach signing Young as part of the Cowboys’ most recent recruiting class.
“I didn’t know a lot about Wyoming, but I really looked to come to the West Coast, play an up-tempo game and shoot a lot of 3s,” Young said. “And I feel like Wyoming fit my game well.”
That may sound strange coming from a 6-foot-9, 180-pound forward who looks like he should be spending most of his time closer to the basket, but Young is exactly the kind of player that fits the way Edwards wants his team to play. It’s a system he hopes will help the Cowboys experience their most successful season yet during his tenure, which has started with back-to-back 20-win seasons.
Edwards is at a point entering his third season where nearly the entire roster is comprised of his recruits. Eleven of Wyoming’s 13 scholarship players have been signed by Edwards since he took over the program following Larry Shyatt’s resignation after the 2015-16 season. The other two, seniors Justin James and Jordan Naughton, were originally part of Shyatt’s program but might as well have been inked by Edwards now that they’ve been playing for him for three years.
Each player’s skill set was targeted during the recruiting process for a specific reason — to create mismatches all over the court in a system that’s largely positionless.
“We’re very specific about the type of kids or skilled or positioned kids that we’re bringing into the program,” Edwards said. “There are certain things that we just don’t want to recruit.”
The idea is to have big men that can stretch defenses with mid-range jumpers as often as they bang down low; wings that can snatch a rebound and be at the other end of the court in a matter of seconds, either pulling up for a 3-pointer in transition or looking for a higher-percentage shot; and guards that can finish at the rim just as routinely as they launch from long distance.
The system isn’t exactly innovative. It’s the way the sport is trending with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and the rest of the Golden State Warriors setting the standard for up-tempo, five-shooters-on-the-floor-that-can-also-guard-any-position basketball with their run of three NBA championships in the last four years.
Edwards even remembers some form of positionless basketball from his playing days at Kentucky, where he was part of two NCAA championship teams from 1994-98.
“Even the teams I played with at the University of Kentucky, we had skill guys at the (power forward) and (center) spots that could get it off the rim and push,” Edwards said. “Now with the way Golden State is playing, everybody has now found a term for it. It’s always been around. We’re just now starting to use that term.”
Edwards inherited a 14-win team following the 2015-16 season and led the Cowboys to 23 wins, a seventh-place finish in the Mountain West and a College Basketball Invitational championship in his first season at the helm. Wyoming improved to a 10-8 mark in MW play last season — its first winning record in the league under Edwards — which was good enough for sixth.
The losses of double-figure scorers Hayden Dalton and Alan Herndon almost certainly factored into the Cowboys being picked in the league’s preseason poll to drop back down to seventh this season. Edwards is counting on all the players he’s hand-picked to execute his system to help Wyoming take another step in its climb in the MW.
“This new group fits my personality and this staff better going forward not only with the skill level but the athleticism and ability to play on the both ends of the ball,” Edwards said.
Ironically, James may be the most versatile player on Wyoming’s roster. A preseason All-MW selection, James’ decision to put the NBA off for another year gives the Cowboys a legitimate league player-of-the-year candidate who averaged 18.9 points, six rebounds and 3.1 assists last season.
James primarily served as the Cowboys’ shooting guard last season but also played the point at times. He could also move down to small forward if a certain matchup called for it, but the 6-foot-7, 192-pounder can score from anywhere as evidenced by his field-goal percentage of 47.2, the best of his career.
Sophomore Hunter Maldonado, the only other returning starter, could play on the wing or in the post at 6-7. The same goes for forwards Austin Mueller and Jordan Naughton, who’s healthy after missing the second half of last season with a back injury.
Junior college transfer Jake Hendricks could be a prime candidate to space out the floor after setting the school record with 191 3-pointers the last two seasons at the College of Southern Idaho,. That would create space for the likes of James, forward Lwal Dung and point guard A.J. Banks to operate in the cracks of the defense. Both junior college transfers, the 6-7 Dung has impressed with his ability to run rim to rim while Banks might be the Cowboys’ best player at playing above it despite his 6-2 stature.
Wyoming would still be able to match up defensively at just about every position on the floor from a size standpoint if Edwards ever decides to try to wear teams down by going small, which is a relative term for this year’s team. Banks and senior guard Nyaires Redding are the only players on the roster shorter than 6-4, which goes back to those specifics Edwards looks for on the recruiting trail.
“I like big guards,” Edwards said. “At the same time, I like guys that are capable of making a jump shot.”
Edwards feels like all of his bigs can stretch defenses by doing that. Naughton, who shares the distinction of being the Cowboys’ tallest player with 6-10 redshirt freshman Hunter Thompson, shot 57.1 percent from the field in the nine games he played last year. Dung amde nine 3s in one game for Neosho County Community College a season ago while freshman forward Brandon Porter shot 39 percent from beyond the arc at Washington Academy last season.
“This group is hand-picked by myself because of what we’re like as a team, so when you see a kid like Lwal that’s very long, athletic and can run all day, that fits what we do,” Edwards said. “The skill of a Brandon Porter, a Trace Young being 6-9 and having the ability to play like a guard, that’s hand-picked. And then even a guy like Thompson being at 6-10 but a guy that is very mobile and can step out and shoot the 3-point shot.”
Said James, “This is a team that really reflects his coaching style, and us having these versatile players, I feel like it’s really going to help win games for sure.”
Winning the right games will be the key if the Cowboys’ mix of holdovers and newcomers wants to make a serious run at an NCAA Tournament berth in what was a two-bid league last season. If not for San Diego State getting the league’s automatic berth by winning the MW tournament title, Nevada would’ve been the only team from the league dancing last year.
Teams’ stocks will fluctuate as the season goes along, but Nevada was the only MW team with a top-50 RPI last season. It’s unlikely Wyoming gets many chances for quality wins in the league, making a non-conference slate that presents some opportunities vital.
There’s a trip to Oregon State the second game of the season and a home game against South Carolina on Sept. 5. Wyoming will spend part of Thanksgiving week in Florida competing in the Fort Meyers Tip-Off, where the Cowboys will start with Boston College on Nov. 19 before getting a possible matchup with Final Four participant Loyola Chicago on Nov. 21.
“Everybody starts off with that mentality (of wanting to make the NCAA Tournament),” Edwards said. “I’ve never been the one to try to duck or play a soft schedule just because it’s one of my first few years as a head coach. I understand how important that part is if you’re trying to put yourself in position for postseason play.”
How much weight any possible wins against those teams will carry depends on how those teams perform throughout the season. Wyoming may still have to go the route of the MW’s automatic qualifier like the 2014-15 team did, but Edwards has the guys — his guys — in place to give it a shot.