LARAMIE — Wyoming’s rough season continues.
With their 69-55 loss to Boise State in their Mountain West opener Wednesday, the Cowboys have lost four of their last five games to drop to a season-worst six games under .500. Wyoming, which hasn’t beaten a Division I team since knocking off South Carolina on Dec. 5, is on pace for its first losing season since the 2014-15 campaign and its fewest victories since winning just 10 games during the 2010-11 season.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to get better,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said.
Yet it’s not the only funk the Cowboys will be trying to snap out of when they hit the road this weekend looking for any ounce of momentum they can muster at this point.
Still looking for its first true road win, Wyoming will start a two-game road swing Saturday with a trip to UNLV, a place of futility for the Cowboys for more than a decade. The Runnin’ Rebels (7-6, 1-0 MW) have beaten Wyoming (4-10, 0-1) at the Thomas & Mack Center, which is also home to the Mountain West tournament, 16 straight times in the regular season since the Cowboys last won there on Feb. 1, 2003.
The Cowboys also lost to UNLV in the 2014 MW tournament and have won just once at UNLV’s arena — a first-round league tournament win over San Jose State last season — since Josh Adams and Larry Nance Jr. led them to the MW tournament championship there in 2015. UNLV, which outlasted Colorado State at home in its conference opener Wednesday, has picked up all but two of its wins in its own building.
Of course, beating anybody anywhere has been a struggle for Wyoming given its attrition. The Cowboys have lost seven players for multiple games at some point this season because of injuries, suspensions and other defections and are still without their second- and third-leading scorers in Hunter Maldonado (nerve, knee injuries) and Jake Hendricks (torn LCL). That leaves the Cowboys with a seven-man rotation that has few proven commodities outside of all-everything guard Justin James.
James is averaging nearly 22 points per game but has struggled recently with defenses keying on the MW’s leading scorer more than usual. James, who’s also playing more minutes than anybody in the conference, is shooting just 22 percent from the field and 16 percent from 3-point range over the last four games while committing 26 turnovers with just 17 assists during that span.
“All players have their slumps, and my confidence is always high,” James said. “I’m always going to play my game and do what’s best for the team.”
The most help he’s gotten on the offensive end recently has come from true freshman Trace Young, who’s scored 32 points since having his redshirt pulled two games ago. The 6-foot-9 wing has made 12 of his first 18 shots, including 7 of 11 from 3.
Senior forward Jordan Naughton reached double figures for the first time this season against Boise State in his most extended minutes. Edwards said the first step in taking some of the pressure off James is getting Naughton and fellow big Hunter Thompson more involved as the Cowboys slow down the pace on the offensive end to try to preserve energy for everybody.
“Trace obviously is shooting the ball well, but we’ve got to be able to throw the ball inside to Naughton and Thompson to get other opportunities,” Edwards said. “Like I told (James) in front of the team, these guys need to be able to do some things so that other opportunities open up for you rather than you trying to go create them.”
UNLV is still trying to replace the production of 7-footer Brandon McCoy, who averaged 17 points and 10.3 rebounds in his only season with the Runnin’ Rebels before declaring for the NBA Draft. Only Wyoming is shooting it worse in the MW than UNLV’s 41.6-percent clip on the season while the Runnin’ Rebels also rank eighth in the 11-team league in field-goal percentage defense (44.5).
UNLV is also without senior forward and top rebounder Shakur Juiston, who was averaging 10.8 points and 8.8 boards before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. But the Runnin’ Rebels still have three double-figure scorers in their rotation, led by Kris Clyburn’s 12.8 points per game.
Wyoming, which hasn’t scored more than 65 points in its last four games, will need as many chances as possible to put the ball in the basket given its offensive woes, meaning the Cowboys’ ball security will have to be better than its been recently if they want avoid more of the same in Las Vegas this time around.
The Cowboys coughed it up 15 times against Boise State and are averaging nearly 18 turnovers over their last four games. Wyoming’s 0.73 assist-to-turnover ratio is last in the league.
“Taking care of the ball. That’s really all it is,” Young said. “When it comes down to it and you look at the stat sheet and you watch the game, it’s turnovers.”