LARAMIE — The season is just two games old for Wyoming, and the Cowboys are already having to involuntarily make some changes.
Injuries have left Wyoming thin on the frontline. Senior forward Jordan Naughton’s partially torn knee ligament will have him out for at least another month while freshman big Hunter Thompson suffered a concussion in the Cowboys’ season opener that kept him out of Saturday’s game at Oregon State.
Thompson still hasn’t cleared concussion protocol and won’t be available for either game this week, Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. The Cowboys (0-2) are still looking for their first win heading into Wednesday’s game against Grambling State at the Arena-Auditorium. Wyoming will stay home Friday against Niagara before heading to Florida early next week for the Fort Myers Tip-Off.
It’s a tournament Edwards is hopeful to have Thompson back for, but it may not be until Wyoming’s trip to Evansville after Thanksgiving that the Pine Bluffs native returns to action. That leaves Austin Mueller, a 6-foot-6 forward, as the Cowboys’ most experienced frontcourt option for the foreseeable future.
“When you go from having a 6-11 kid and a 6-10 kid in your middle to now having a 6-6 kid in the middle, that makes a big difference with what you’re trying to do,” Edwards said. “We have to be a little more creative in how we approach it.”
Without much size or girth, the Cowboys have struggled to hold up on the interior despite the best efforts of guards Justin James and Hunter Maldonado. James, who finished an assist shy of a triple-double in Wyoming’s 83-64 loss to Oregon State, has pulled down double-digit rebounds in both games while Maldonado grabbed a team-high 10 boards in the exhibition. The sophomore continues to fight through muscle spasms in his back that don’t have him fully healthy either.
The Cowboys are 334th out of 351 Division I teams in rebounding margin (minus-13.5) and have given up 23 offensive boards, including 15 to Oregon State that the Beavers turned into 21 second-chance points. Going up against a team with three 7-footers and three players in its rotation 6-8 or taller, Wyoming was outscored 46-30 in the paint.
Edwards said his team will have to play more zone defense to combat its lack of size for the time being. The Cowboys normally like to go fast on the offensive end — Wyoming has ranked in the top 15 nationally in adjusted tempo (possessions per 40 minutes) in each of Edwards’ first two seasons at the helm, according to kenpom.com — but with the number of proven options dwindling, the Cowboys won’t try to press the issue as much.
“I would rather go the opposite direction because the other caveat is you don’t want to fatigue your best player in Justin James,” Edwards said. “And not having Maldonado at 100 percent, you play more zone and you’re very optimistic about your opportunities in transition. Those come more so from missed shots and turnovers, and that’s probably it.”
It’s something Edwards has been emphasizing with his team all week considering the change in style it’s going to see from Grambling (1-0), a team Edwards said likes to use its speed and quickness to turn defense into offense. The defending SWAC regular-season champion put up 105 points against NAIA member Jarvis Christian in the only game it’s played so far.
“They want to speed you up,” Edwards said. “Our main message to our guys is we just have to be more disciplined. We can’t fall into the trap of trying to make it a rat race.”
True freshman Brandon Porter and junior college transfer Lwal Dung are likely to get more minutes to help in the frontcourt. The 6-9 Porter got his first career start against Oregon State and finished with 10 points and five rebounds while Dung attempted just two shots and grabbed one board in 11 minutes.
Both players are still works in progress on the defensive end, but the Cowboys are working with what they’ve got.
“Your team has drastically changed within a five-day span. You can’t go from that and say, ‘OK, let’s go try to make a miracle,’” Edwards said. “You take it one day, one game, one practice at a time. With this group, their biggest thing is just going out there, competing, defending and rebounding.”