The battle of attrition continues for the Wyoming men’s basketball team.
Head coach Allen Edwards announced during his teleconference call Friday that freshman Tariq Johnson, who has played limited minutes in nine games off the bench this season, won’t be available when the Cowboys (3-9) host Dixie State in their final tune-up before Mountain West play begins next week.
“We’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on with him from a fatigue standpoint and why he wasn’t getting in shape,” Edwards said. “We had some tests done on him and from a medical standpoint he’s not available either.”
Johnson joins a growing list of UW players on the sidelines or no longer with the team. Junior Jake Hendricks, the team’s fourth-leading scorer at 11.4 points per game, suffered a leg injury in the Cowboys’ loss to UTEP last Saturday and is out for the foreseeable future.
“Jake is in a knee brace and on crutches,” Edwards said. “I haven’t gotten word on the extent and he is having an MRI as we speak. The doctor didn’t see anything bone structure wise that was out of place, but he wanted an MRI to see specifics.”
Johnson and Hendricks join Austin Mueller (out for the season with a torn ACL) and Hunter Maldonado (back) on the injured list. In addition, the Cowboys are without Nyaires Redding (suspension) and Lwal Dung (left the team). And senior big man Jordan Naughton saw his first action of the season against UTEP after missing the first 11 games with a partially torn LCL.
So, heading into Saturday’s game, it leaves the Cowboys with eight healthy bodies, including two freshmen who have yet to play this season. That will change, though, as Edwards said he is planning to start Trace Young. The 6-foot-9, 179-pounder was expected to redshirt, but that was before all the injuries.
“Trace is off his redshirt,” Edwards said. “He will compete tomorrow and the rest of the year as we follow what’s going on with Jake and what’s going on with Tariq.
“I plan on starting him. The question was never talent or was he ready to play. That was never the question. You look at the make-up of our team and outside of A.J. (Banks) and (Justin James) he’s our next-best ball handler from a perimeter standpoint.
“But I will start him and get a feel for him early. He’s excited about it and I though (Thursday) might have been his best practice of the year.”
How those practice sessions translate to game action remains to be seen, but at this point the Cowboys need all the help they can get. Wyoming has lost three in a row and has yet to win back-to-back games this season.
Senior guard Justin James continues to put up impressive numbers, leading the team with 22.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. But James was held to a season-low eight points on 3-of-21 shooting in a 76-53 loss to East Tennessee State on Dec. 21. He came back the next night to score a team-high 22 points in the loss to UTEP, but Edwards knows he has to find a way to get James, who is averaging 37.8 minutes a game, some rest.
“We have to make some adjustments in the sense of how we play and how we utilize JJ,” Edwards said. “I felt like watching him down in Texas the minutes were finally starting to take a toll on him because he’s not a 3-for-21 player. We have to find a way to get him off the floor and get him some rest, even when he’s on the floor so he can better be able to finish games.”
Redshirt freshman Hunter Thompson (Pine Bluffs) poured in 25 points in the loss to East Tennessee State as he looks to become a reliable second scoring option behind James.
“Thompson is continuing to go down his path,” Edwards said. “He came out in the second half against East Tennessee and was unbelievable.”
With the lack of available bodies, Edwards admitted the Cowboys will likely have to scrap their preferred up-tempo style of play and embrace the deliberate offensive style they employed under former head coach Larry Shyatt.
“We have to go back to old-school Shy-ball,” Edwards said. “We have to be more deliberate on offense and we have to get the ball moving side to side. We can’t come down and shoot in the first 10 to 15 seconds.”
And with so many new faces on the floor – UW’s lineup Saturday will consist of two seniors, one junior and five freshmen – Edwards knows he and his team have to be patient.
“The biggest thing is we have to look for a lot of positives to encourage our guys out there,” he said. “Let’s figure it out from playing hard because there are going to be breakdowns. But we have to be able to stop the bleeding, and I think that’s where JJ comes in.
“We’re just trying to get small victories and grow with them.”