LARAMIE — Even amid one of the worst seasons Wyoming’s men’s basketball program has ever seen, head coach Allen Edwards’ job was never in serious jeopardy.
How much longer that’s the case, though, depends on how soon Edwards can meet his boss’s expectation of having the Cowboys back among the top half of the Mountain West. There’s no guarantee that happens, though Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman has faith in the one-time assistant he chose to promote three years ago following Larry Shyatt’s resignation.
“I have a lot of confidence he’ll get it done. I do,” Burman told the Star-Tribune on Tuesday. “As crazy as it sounds, I don’t believe we’re that far away. But he’s got to go get some players and he’s got to develop players. If he comes up short in that regard, it’ll be tough.”
Edwards led the Cowboys to a CBI championship and 44 combined wins the previous two seasons, the most ever for a men’s basketball coach at Wyoming in his first two years. But that momentum came to a screeching halt this season, which was as bad as it’s been for the program in nearly half a century.
Wyoming’s eight wins were the fewest since the 1973-74 team won just four while the winning percentage (25.0) was the lowest since that same team won just 15.4 percent of its games. The Cowboys had never lost 24 games in a season until this one, and most of them were blowouts. Wyoming, which only finished above a four-win San Jose State team in the MW standings, had an average margin of defeat in league play of 17.9 points.
“I want to compete in the upper half of the league all the time,” Burman said. “A situation like this is not acceptable. And I think Wyoming is occasionally a place that can ring the bell like we did four years ago when we won the (conference) tournament with Larry Nance and that crew. In our history, that hasn’t happened very often, but that’s our goals.”
Of course, context is needed to properly put the season into perspective. While media members thought of Wyoming as a team that could compete for a top-half finish in the MW by voting the Cowboys seventh in the preseason poll, Burman said he didn’t expect that with eight newcomers mixing in with all-league guard Justin James.
Wyoming also lost all-league players Hayden Dalton and Alan Herndon off last year’s 20-win team, but that was only the beginning of the attrition. A partially torn knee ligament cost senior big Jordan Naughton a majority of the non-conference schedule, Hunter Maldonado and Austin Mueller went down with season-ending injuries, starting point guard Ny Redding was indefinitely suspended after allegedly striking two women at a Laramie bar in December, and forward Lwal Dung left the team later that month.
It whittled Wyoming’s rotation to seven scholarship players before Edwards made the decision to pull freshman Trace Young’s redshirt just before the start of conference play. All but two of them were first-year players while four of them were freshmen.
“I knew it might be a little bit of a rebuild, but when you lose so many key guys so early and you’ve got to basically panic and go recruit students from campus and football players to join your squad, not only does it impact what you do on the floor but basically your practices are a waste,” Burman said. “So I was disappointed and frustrated, and then you throw in what I would call a self-inflicted wound with Ny Redding’s deal, that just adds to it. It was just an up-and-down frustrating season.”
But the expectation is clear going forward. Burman said he met with Edwards in the days following Wyoming’s season-ending loss to New Mexico in the first round of the MW tournament, and the two have had “multiple, lengthy conversations” over the last month where Edwards has laid out a thorough plan to get the program back on track. It includes everything from recruiting to player development to the strength and conditioning program.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re doing everything right so that these injuries are not caused by something we’re either doing or not doing,” Burman said. “We’re doing a deep dive into all those things right now to figure out how to get better.”
Burman said part of his optimism comes from how the Cowboys finished the season. Wyoming’s only winning streak came with back-to-back wins to end the regular season while its last three losses, which came by an average of 9.6 points, were far more competitive than usual. The Cowboys led by as many as 16 against New Mexico in the MW tournament before the Lobos rallied in the second half.
Burman praised Edwards’ ability to keep his players engaged when it would’ve been easy for the opposite to happen. He also noted the academic success of the men’s basketball players, which has been “as good as we’ve had in a decade,” Burman said.
But winning is ultimately what matters for the program’s perception as well as the bottom line. Wyoming averaged 4,571 fans at its home games in 2017 and 5,009 last season, according to the NCAA’s Division I men’s basketball attendance summary, but average attendance at the Arena-Auditorium dropped to 3,961 this season. That fact wasn’t lost on Burman.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist just to look around the arena and see that people aren’t there,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to produce.”
Wyoming has signed two high school players in its 2019 recruiting class in guards Kwane Marble Jr. and Kenny Foster, who was recently named Colorado’s Gatorade Player of the Year. But the Cowboys are losing their star in James, leaving Wyoming with a roster in which more than half of its players will be underclassmen barring any other additions or subtractions.
It all makes for a pivotal year next season for the program and its coach, whose five-year contract runs through April 30, 2021.
“Next year, I’m not going to put a number on it,” Burman said. “I’m not going to say we’ve got to win x (number of games) to continue down the same path, but we’ve got to make dramatic improvement.”