For anyone planning to regularly attend Wyoming’s basketball games this season, a roster would be handy.
Justin James is still on there. The preseason All-Mountain West Conference selection is the unquestioned face of the Cowboys heading into a senior season in which he could find himself among the program’s top 10 all-time leading scorers once it’s over. But there are plenty that aren’t nearly as recognizable.
Eight newcomers have been added to a team that has just two starters and five players back that contributed last season. Hayden Dalton and Alan Herndon, Wyoming’s only other double-figure scorers a season ago, are gone. Louis Adams and Alexander Aka Gorski graduated and Cody Kelley, who transferred after starting 23 games last season, aren’t around anymore either.
Hunter Maldonado is expected to make the natural progression of increasing his production after averaging 5.3 points and 2.2 rebounds in 19 starts as a freshman. Seniors Jordan Naughton and Nyaires Redding and sophomore Austin Mueller are back after contributing on a limited basis last season. But three junior college transfers and five freshmen will immediately compete for minutes to try to pick up some of the slack for a team that has to replace more than half of its scoring and rebounding from a season ago.
Exactly how many newbies end up carving out a role on a team that’s coming off a second straight 20-win season and a sixth-place finish in the MW will take some time for third-year coach Allen Edwards to figure out. But there are plenty of quick, fast, rangy options to choose from.
“This is by far the most athletic team I’ve ever been a part of,” James said.
Junior college transfers A.J. Banks, Lwal Dang and Jake Hendricks are the leading candidates among the newcomers to immediately contribute given their edge in experience. To hear coaches and teammates tell it, Banks and Dung are already competing for the title of the most God-gifted athlete on the roster.
“Freakish” is how Edwards describes their physical abilities.
A 6-foot-2 point guard, Banks has turned heads in the preseason with his ability to quickly push the ball up the court and finish at the rim. Banks averaged 11.2 points, three rebounds and 3.3 assists last season at Pratt Community College while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range. But it’s on the other end of the floor where the Las Vegas native feels like he can impact games the most by turning defense into instant offense — something Wyoming could use more of after giving up the second-most points in the MW on a per-game basis last season.
“Getting deflections and things of that sort, that will be the thing that elevates my game more than the offensive end,” Banks said. “Playing defense gets me fired up, especially because people know about my athleticism and it’s kind of something they expect but they don’t know for sure if I can do it or not. Me being able to do that this season is pretty important.”
Playing his junior college ball at Neosho Community College in Kansas, Dung had interest from Big 12 schools Oklahoma and Iowa State as well as Creighton and DePaul among others during the recruiting process. He ultimately decided on Wyoming because he said Edwards and his staff stuck with him after his chances of qualifying academically were murky when he fell behind on his summer coursework.
But Dung got it done, giving Wyoming a versatile big that could play small forward, power forward or even center depending on the lineup. The 6-7, 180-pounder averaged 12.1 points and seven rebounds while ranking fifth in the Jayhawk Conference last season with 40 blocks. He also sank 43 3-pointers.
“My strengths, I think, I can play any position from the 3, 4 or 5 and be able to create a lot of mismatches,” Dung said. “My energy on defense and just running the floor.”
Hendricks complements them by being the best long-range shooter of the bunch. The 6-5, 180-pounder set a school record at the College of Southern Idaho with 191 3s the last two seasons and is a prime candidate to stretch defense in transition or traditional half-court sets.
“When they first started recruiting me, (assistant) coach (Jermaine) Kimbrough sent me a video of how they played and I really liked it because it’s how I see myself playing and how I played at my junior college,” Hendricks said. “Shooting a lot of 3s, being able to drive to the basket and pass a lot.”
The trio has gotten acclimated to Edwards’ up-and-down, positionless style of basketball about the way he expected with each of them having already played against college competition.
“Those three guys have done a great job adjusting to what we have,” Edwards said.
The adjustment has taken a little longer for Trace Young, Brandon Porter, Bradley Belt, Tariq Johnson and TJ Taylor, though the quintet isn’t your typical group of freshmen. Each came to Wyoming from the prep school ranks while some are teammates again.
Young and Johnson played together at Mount Zion Prep in Baltimore last season while Belt and Porter spent the year at North Carolina’s Washington Academy playing under former Wyoming graduate assistant Bruce Martin.
“We’re not really young,” Young said. “Everybody has lived away from home and everybody has been somewhere. I wouldn’t say we’re young. I’d say we’re new, and we’re doing a good job. We spent a lot of time together this summer meshing and learning, and I feel like we’ll be fine.”
Belt, a 6-4 point guard, and Johnson, whose 6-5 frame will allow him to move around to different guard spots, give Wyoming more options in the backcourt as could Young, Porter and Taylor. At 6-9, 6-8 and 6-6, respectively, Young, Porter and Taylor have the size and shooting ability to log minutes on the perimeter or down low depending on the lineup Edwards wants to use at any given time.
They all have shown the ability to put the ball in the basket regardless of where they’re at on the floor.
Each of them averaged double figures a season ago with Belt being the most prolific scorer of the bunch at 29.3 points per game to go with 3.3 assists per game last season. Porter, a lefty, averaged 23 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 2.1 assists. No one among the group averaged fewer than 15 points for their respective teams.
That kind of production a step above high school is breeding confidence among the freshmen as they prepare to make the leap to the Division I level.
“We can shoot, and we’ve got length,” Belt said. “We’re strong, and we’re mature. We know the game. We’re willing to work hard. We’re not taking the stance of because we’re young that we’re going to take a back seat.”
But freshmen are freshmen, and there’s still a learning curve that comes with trying to get caught up to the speed of the game and learning the intricacies of the most sophisticated system any of them have immersed themselves in to this point in their careers. That’s where the players who have been there and done that come in, taking it upon themselves to try to help speed that process up for a group of youngsters that’s eager to learn.
“They don’t know what they don’t know,” Edwards said. “I think every time you move up in a division, the game gets faster. At the same time, you’re working a little bit harder. So that’s where our older guys and returning guys have done a great job of setting a tone and letting them know that this is a different level of work than what you’re used to. But I love the fact they’re all bought into it.”
Said Maldonado, “We’re definitely trying to help the new guys learn as quick as possible and help them get used to college basketball as quick as possible.”
So much roster turnover has the rest of the MW unsure of exactly what to expect from the Cowboys outside of James, whose 18.9 points per game are the most among the league’s returning players. Wyoming was picked by conference media to finish seventh in the league’s preseason poll, but the newcomers would like to think they already have the physical talent to help the Cowboys exceed those modest expectations.
They won’t get a chance to officially put it on display until they take the floor at the Arena-Auditorium on Tuesday for the season opener against UC Santa Barbara, but Wyoming’s new faces are ready to introduce themselves.
“I think we’re all excited to prove ourselves, be as good as we can be and prove what we can to the Mountain West,” Hendricks said.