LARAMIE — To say Wyoming’s season has been rough to this point would be an understatement.
It’s on pace to be the program’s worst in more than four decades.
Wyoming’s 30-point loss at San Diego State earlier this week — its worst loss since a 39-point loss to the Aztecs back in 2011 — sent the Cowboys to a season-worst eight games under .500. It left Wyoming, which will try to avoid its longest losing streak of the season when Utah State visits the Arena-Auditorium on Saturday, with just four wins through its first 16 games, meaning the Cowboys need to win nearly half of their remaining 15 regular-season games just to reach double-digit victories.
The last time Wyoming (4-12, 0-3 MW) failed to win 10 games was the 1973-74 season when the Cowboys won just four as a member of the Western Athletic Conference. But can this year’s version of the Cowboys at least match the nine wins the 1972-73 team had at this point?
“At the end of the day, I’m a fighter,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “Like I told our staff, this is what we’ve got, and we’ve got to figure something out.”
San Jose State, Air Force and Colorado State are sub-.500 teams that are still on Wyoming’s schedule twice, though that didn’t mean much for the Cowboys against Boise State in the teams’ league opener on Jan. 2. The Broncos limped into that game with a 5-8 record before leaving the Arena-Auditorium with a convincing 69-55 victory.
In fact, Wyoming, which hasn’t beaten a Division I team since Dec. 11, has struggled to be competitive of late. The Cowboys’ last five losses have all come by double figures while they’re losing league games by an average of 19 points.
There are glaring issues for Wyoming — some the Cowboys can control and some they can’t.
Wyoming’s depleted rotation is still without injured double-figure scorers Hunter Maldonado and Jake Hendricks, who may miss the rest of the season. Freshman Tariq Johnson is also out with an unspecified injury, leaving the Cowboys with just seven available scholarship players.
It’s forced Wyoming to go almost exclusively with a 2-3 zone on defense and significantly slow the pace on offense in order to try to preserve as much energy as possible for the full 40 minutes. Senior guard Justin James, who’s still leading the MW in scoring despite shooting less than 25 percent from the field over the last six games, has played every minute in the last three games while younger players who had limited or, in Young’s case, no roles at the beginning of the season are now logging extended minutes.
Freshman forward Hunter Thompson is the rotation’s second-leading scorer at 12.2 points per game, but the Cowboys need more assertiveness from others on the offensive end to help James, who’s consistently drawing double teams. Specifically, Edwards said he’s looking for senior forward Jordan Naughton, who’s averaging just 4.8 points and 1.7 rebounds, and guard A.J. Banks, who scored 18 points against UTEP on Dec. 22 but hasn’t taken more than three shots since, to pick up their production.
“We’ve still got season left,” Edwards said. “And you say, ‘Well, what are you fighting for?’ At the end of the day, we’re fighting to get better, especially the newer guys because JJ is taking on a lot.”
Of course, it won’t matter much if Wyoming doesn’t start holding on to the ball and offering more resistance on defense. The Cowboys are averaging 16.3 turnovers in league play and are allowing more than 76 points per game for the second straight season.
Against a SDSU team that leads the MW in 3-point field-goal percentage, the Cowboys often left the Aztecs’ shooters all alone and gave up 12 3s. Wyoming isn’t getting enough offensive production without Maldonado and Hendricks to make up for those mental lapses, averaging just 58 points over its last six games.
“It’s frustrating just because we do such a great job of scouting teams,” Thompson said. “It’s frustrating because even I find myself doing the opposite of what our scout does. It’s just kind of a mental lapse I guess that we need to get rid of.”
Said James, “Maybe just a lack of effort, a lack or edge or lack or intensity. Those are questions we need to get answered, especially with these conference games coming up.”
Things won’t get much easier against Utah State (11-5, 1-2), one of the MW’s more complete teams. The Aggies, who own the MW’s third-best overall record, are third in the league in scoring (78.9 points per game) and second in points allowed (65.9).
“Our margin for error is very small,” Thompson said. “We need to limit all of the errors, which can eventually help us get a win.”