LARAMIE — Wins aren’t the only thing Wyoming is low on 10 games into the season
The Cowboys have just three of them and have yet to have a winning streak. Wyoming hasn’t played since dropping a 90-87 overtime decision to Denver on Dec. 11, but the Cowboys will be back in action Friday against East Tennessee State in their opening game of the Sun Bowl Invitational in El Paso, Texas.
ETSU, which has won at least 24 games in three straight seasons under Steve Forbes as one of the top programs in the Southern Conference, is led by Jeromy Rodriguez, who’s averaging a double-double for the season (11.3 points, 11.9 rebounds). The Buccaneers (8-4) recently added more size to their frontcourt with the NCAA granting immediate eligibility to 7-foot Oklahoma State transfer Lucas N’Guessan.
“They’re hard-nosed, rebounding, tough and play hard,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “A physical basketball team that looks to try to get you out of your comfort zone with that type of culture.”
Regardless who Wyoming (3-7) is playing, Edwards is just trying to piece together a rotation that continues to lose one experienced body after another. Senior forward Jordan Naughton hasn’t played all season with a partially torn knee ligament; fellow forward Austin Mueller is done for the season with a torn ACL; and Hunter Maldonado, the Cowboys’ second-leading scorer and rebounder, will miss at least a month after sustaining a nerve injury against Denver unrelated to his back spasms. That doesn’t include senior point guard Ny Redding, who remains suspended indefinitely for his alleged role in an incident earlier this month, or forward Lwal Dung, who recently left the team.
Wyoming is set to get Naughton back against an ETSU team that ranks second nationally in rebounding margin (plus-13.8), though the 6-10, 234-pounder will methodically work his way into the rotation. Edwards said Naughton will play roughly 10 minutes Friday and then again Saturday against either UTEP or Norfolk State in Wyoming’s tournament finale.
Justin James is doing everything he can to help keep Wyoming afloat, leading the Mountain West in scoring (24.5 points per game) and free-throw attempts (101) and ranking third in rebounding (9.3) while playing more minutes (37.8) than anyone in the league. Jake Hendricks is adding 13.1 points a game while shooting 63 percent (12 of 19) from 3-point range the last two games.
But from tempo to defense to everything in between, all the attrition has Edwards reconsidering the strategy that best fits with the way his team is currently constructed. Not only has it cut into the Cowboys’ depth, but Edwards is having to make up for it by doling out more minutes to some of his less-experienced players.
“Being more smart about how we attack offensively within transition but trying to make it more of not a half-court game but coming down and being a little bit more even structured on offense,” Edwards said.
Junior college transfer A.J. Banks logged a season-high 30 minutes against Denver while true freshman Brandon Porter played 10 for just his second double-digit minutes of the season. Fellow freshman TJ Taylor has averaged 20.7 minutes as a consistent part of the rotation from the start, but even he played more minutes (32) than he has all season against the Pioneers.
Edwards said he’ll also try to find certain situations to work in freshman wing Tariq Johnson, who’s averaging just 5.9 minutes, as he tries to keep the rotation eight deep for a team that’s scoring 75 points a game but allowing nearly 79 each time out, which ranks 305th out of 353 Division I teams.
“Some of these newer guys are going to have to learn under fire,” Edwards said.
More youth being integrated into the rotation, Edwards said, has resulted in more defensive breakdowns for the Cowboys, who are also among the nation’s worst in field-goal percentage defense and rebounding. Wyoming has played more zone than the previous two seasons under Edwards in an attempt to stay out of foul trouble while also trying to give Wyoming’s depleted rotation some rest on the defensive end.
Edwards said the Cowboys will look at playing it almost exclusively now in order to keep things as simple as possible for the youngsters that have to take on larger roles whether they’re ready or not.
“When you have the opportunity to go man, you’re putting yourself in a situation because of the newness of the younger guys that may not understand how to rotate or when to rotate,” Edwards said. “But when you’re in a zone, they have less thinking to do. The more we play zone or are capable of staying in zone, the better we’ll be.”