LARAMIE — Allen Edwards hardly notices anymore.
Justin James became one of the most prolific players in Wyoming basketball history before he ran out of eligibility. The do-it-all combo guard led the Mountain West in scoring last season, also led the Cowboys in rebounds and assists and finished No. 3 on the school’s all-time scoring list before being taken in the second round of this year’s NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
His departure means Wyoming is going through practice for the first time in four years without one of its most recognizable players, but Edwards has gotten used to it by now.
“Maybe I’ve gotten used to it from the summer,” Wyoming’s coach said Wednesday during the team’s media day. “But no, that’s the first time I’ve actually ever thought of it that way. “
James was one of the few bright spots for the Cowboys amid one of the worst seasons in program history. Wyoming won just eight games and set the single-season record for the most losses in school history, making for a season Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman called unacceptable for a program he expects to compete in the upper half of the Mountain West.
Only San Jose State finished below Wyoming in the MW standings a season ago. And with a talent like James no longer around, the Cowboys will almost surely be picked to finish near the bottom of the league standings again when the preseason poll is released at MW Men’s Basketball Media Day next week.
But as Wyoming embarks on a new season, Edwards is optimistic about the outlook of his team given a roster that he believes is more capable of spreading the wealth entering his fourth season at the helm.
“How do you replace that? Well we’re not trying to replace JJ,” Edwards said. “What I do believe is watching us, we’re probably more complete of a team because of a little bit more balance in ability.”
Edwards’ assessment starts with sophomore wing Hunter Maldonado, who was quickly emerging as a bonafide secondary scoring option to James before injuries cut his season short. The 6-foot-7, 200-pounder played in just eight games last season but still finished as the Cowboys’ second-leading scorer (13.8 points per game) and rebounder (6.8).
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Maldonado took a medical redshirt and returned this summer to the court, where he’s practiced at nearly every position. Depending on what kind of lineup Edwards decides to go with against any given opponent, Maldonado could play inside, outside or even at the point.
“He’s not going to show you flash like JJ or Josh Adams did, but at the end of the day when you look at his overall production, he’ll be just as impactful as those guys,” Edwards said. “More complete of a group than looking at JJ and saying, ‘How do we replace what he was able to do?’ Everybody to this summer to the fall to now practicing has taken a step of getting better. And we’ve just got to continue to do that.”
Maldonado is one of seven scholarship players back from last year’s team. That includes the Cowboys’ only other double-figure scorer and top 3-point shooter in Jake Hendricks (10.8 points per game, 40.6 percent from 3), point guard A.J. Banks and 6-10 forward Hunter Thompson, who made 22 starts and averaged 8.8 points as a redshirt freshman.
Banks has competition at the point from junior college transfer Greg Milton III, one of five scholarship newcomers. But one of the biggest differences players have noticed with the influx of new talent is the depth and physicality in the frontcourt.
Wyoming enters the season with three true bigs following the additions of Tyler Morman (6-9, 220 pounds) and freshman Javier Turner (6-11, 230). Edwards said Morman, a junior college transfer, is further along than Turner at this point and will be an immediate part of the rotation, but both bring a rugged element to the Cowboys’ frontline.
“They’re very, very physical,” Hendricks said. “I think we’re going to be a lot more physical as a team this year. Even when you run through the lane and one of them bumps you, you’re like, ‘Oh, man.’ We didn’t have that last year.”
Of course, staying healthy would go a long way in the Cowboys’ effort to turn things around. Maldonado was one of four players who missed significant time because of injuries as the Cowboys’ rotation whittled to seven scholarship players at one point last season.
Edwards said Turner is being held out of practice after sustaining a concussion, but he’s the only player as of now that’s questionable for Wyoming’s home exhibition against Division II Northwest Nazarene on Oct. 30. The Cowboys will open the regular season against Idaho State on Nov. 5 at the Arena-Auditorium.
“I think we have a lot of people bought into our mentality, bought into our philosophy and guys just ready to compete,” Banks said. “I think that will help in the long run a lot.”