LARAMIE — It’s been a year of necessary change for Wyoming’s basketball team.
From season-ending injuries to indefinite suspensions to players leaving the program in the middle of the season, the mass attrition has been well-documented. It’s left the Cowboys with seven available scholarship players that doesn’t include two of their top three scorers, forcing them to alter everything from their offensive tempo to their defensive strategy.
That includes their preparation.
Wyoming’s practices don’t look anything like they did in Allen Edwards’ first two seasons at the helm when the Cowboys had enough bodies to go good on good in full-court, 4-minute scrimmages — the same interval between media timeouts in games. Now the Cowboys use walk-ons, managers and sometimes even assistant coaches to fill out two full teams.
But Edwards would rather his depleted rotation save most of its energy for games, so any full-court work the Cowboys get in nowadays is usually simulated in order to keep from wearing his players out in practice.
“It’s more dummy offense, sprint back in our defensive fastbreak and have four guys with coach (Jermaine) Kimbrough or even coach Jeremy (Shyatt) just running down,” Edwards said. “We sprint back to spots if we’re in zone and we sprint back to match up if we’re in man.”
But going 5-on-5 is rare. Most of the work Wyoming does comes with 4-on-4, 3-on-3 or even 1-on-1 matchups that are more structured in the halfcourt, where the Cowboys put their best on best and go hard for a limited amount of time.
Playing primarily a 2-3 zone that Wyoming didn’t use much the previous two seasons, the defense works on its communication, close-outs and rotations. An offense that’s gone from top 20 nationally in tempo to 139th this season works to execute against it until it gets the shot it wants.
“When we do break down stuff defensively, you’ve got to really lock in and kind of use your imagination of how it would be in 5-on-5,” freshman forward Hunter Thompson said.
It’s as close to replicating the intensity of games as the Cowboys can get.
“As crazy as it sounds, I’ve tried not to not even think about the injury process in practice,” Edwards said. “I think we still attack practice in the same instance when we’re doing drills. We’re not doing drills to be careful at the end of the day. I think you still need that competitive edge. If you start worrying too much about the injuries, then the guys are not competing as hard.”
Still, Edwards has to balance getting enough physicality out of practice at the risk of more attrition for a team that’s already lost Austin Mueller (torn ACL) and second-leading scorer and rebounder Hunter Maldonado (back, knee injuries) for the season. The Cowboys have also been without starting guard Jake Hendricks (torn LCL) for more than a month, though he could return to the lineup for Wyoming’s next game Wednesday at Air Force.
Full contact is kept to a minimum. The Cowboys maintain their conditioning with various full-court drills and sprints, but their preparation consists of more mental reps than it did at the beginning of the season.
“Coach tries to focus on teaching more than bumping and beating us up,” freshman wing TJ Taylor said. “It’s more mental, but we still run through our stuff with managers and walk-ons.”
Wyoming got its first Mountain West win against San Jose State on Jan. 23, but translating preparation into a consistent 40 minutes in games has been a difficult task for the Cowboys, who’ve dropped their other seven league games by an average of 21.3 points and have lost each of their last three road games by 25 or more. Gobs of turnovers — the Cowboys are averaging nearly 17 in MW play — aren’t helping.
Senior guard Justin James said it’s up to he and his teammates to make the best of what they’ve got.
“Obviously it’s been a lot more mental than it has been physical because of our bodies, but coaches are giving us the game plan,” James said. “Nobody’s legs are going to be fresh going into these games. It’s just that fight-through, that want-to and that passion to win for your brothers that we need to continue to focus on.”