LARAMIE — For many teams stuck in a rut, there comes a time when a new voice is needed. A different tone welcomed. A fresh take necessary.
That happened earlier this week for Wyoming.
After yet another loss Tuesday night — a 30-point beatdown at San Diego State that became the low point in what’s been a dismal season for the Cowboys — Wyoming coach Allen Edwards let assistants Jeremy Shyatt, Shaun Vandiver and Jermaine Kimbrough have some words with his players in the visitors’ locker room. Even injured wing Hunter Maldonado, who’s missed the last six games, got a chance to tell his teammates what was on his mind.
Their words were forceful and passionate. The volume echoed through the back hallways in the lower level of Viejas Arena.
“You’re going to be down after you lose, but what I appreciated was sometimes it’s good for our guys to hear a different voice besides my own,” Edwards said.
Like he’s been throughout most of this trying season, Edwards was animated on the Cowboys’ bench. There was the occasional displeasure with a referee about what he believed were questionable calls, but most of his energy was directed at his young players, urging them to rotate, switch, pass and cut. Star guard Justin James even took over that role at one point, pleading with his teammates during a timeout early in the first half to pick up the intensity.
But the stern words amid the frustration of a 4-12 record, including the first 0-3 start to Mountain West play for the Cowboys since the 2007-08 season, shouldn’t automatically be associated with negativity.
“It hurts to lose every time, especially being that we’re in this thing to win every game,” said A.J. Banks, who’s started the last four games alongside James in the backcourt with all of the Cowboys’ attrition. “It hurts to lose, but going into the next day at practice and moving forward, we’re always positive. Coaches do a good job of keeping us positive, and we don’t have anybody really bringing us down in a negative way.”
Negativity, players said, is the last thing Wyoming needs given how much has already gone wrong this season. With injuries to Maldonado, Hunter Thompson (concussion), Jordan Naughton (knee), Jake Hendricks (knee), Tariq Johnson (unspecified) and Austin Mueller (season-ending knee injury), point guard Ny Redding’s indefinite suspension and forward Lwal Dung’s decision to leave the team in December, the Cowboys have had more defections than wins.
“Negativity is something I try not to even think about,” James said.
Thompson and Naughton have returned to Wyoming’s frontcourt with mixed results. Thompson, a stretch forward who’s shooting 48 percent from 3-point range, has been Wyoming’s most consistent scoring option outside of James at 12.2 points per game, but Naughton has struggled to find a rhythm since making his season debut six games ago. The 6-foot-10 senior, playing with a bulky brace on his right knee, is averaging just 4.8 points and 1.7 rebounds in 19 minutes.
Maldonado and Hendricks were the Cowboys’ second- and third-leading scorers before their injuries, and there’s a chance neither plays again this season. Hendricks has a torn LCL while Maldonado is dealing with a sprained MCL and a nerve injury in his lower back unrelated to the back spasms he dealt with early in the season, but both have been traveling with the team — and speaking up when they deem it necessary.
“I thought the three assistants spoke up about some things, and I thought Hunter Maldonado made some great points to our guys about figuring some things out and understanding that we are getting the right information,” Edwards said. “Some of this comes back to how hard we play and how hard we take this information to the court.”
The defense has also been spotty with a seven-man rotation, five of which hadn’t played at the Division I level before this season. Wyoming has gone almost exclusively to a 2-3 zone to not only try to give players a blow on that end of the floor but also minimize the amount of thinking the newcomers have to do against the variety of offensive sets thrown at them.
Yet the Cowboys have still found themselves out of position more times than not and slow to close out on shooters. Edwards has gone back and forth between strategies when it comes to coaching up a team short on experience and bodies that’s giving up the second-most points in the MW (76.5 per game) and allowing teams to shoot 45 percent from the field.
“This is what guys don’t understand: I tell them that even when I’m yelling, it’s encouragement. It’s not degrading. It’s not disrespectful or anything of that nature,” Edwards said. “It’s almost like that energy helps because if I’m yelling, I’m screaming and I’m down, you see that. And then some of that wears on to you. But if you’re, in my case, encouraging, sitting down and not on edge like that, maybe that had something to do with (Tuesday night) as well.”
Wyoming has also been its own worst enemy at times with some lackadaisical ball handling, averaging 16.3 turnovers in league play. It’s one of the areas the Cowboys know they can perform better with the pieces they have left.
Which is why Edwards and his staff are hitting them with a heavy dose of positive reinforcement — even if that’s not what it seems like sometimes.
“We try to stay upbeat,” freshman wing Trace Young said. “It’s always tough losing, but we have the pieces.”