LAS VEGAS — A member of Allen Edwards’ staff brought him a statistic this week. Since the 2003-04 season, only two Wyoming men’s basketball teams have won more than half their conference games. The first was the 2014-15 Cowboys, who went on to reach the NCAA Tournament under then-head coach Larry Shyatt. The second was this year’s team.
If they want to repeat the 2014-15 team’s feat, the sixth-seeded Pokes will need to win four straight over the next four days in Las Vegas.
Thanks to Wyoming’s loss at Boise State in its regular-season finale, and San Diego State’s win over first-place Nevada, the Cowboys fell short of a top-five spot, and therefore fell short of a first-round bye at the Mountain West tournament. So, Wyoming will need four wins in four days to win a conference championship. That begins Wednesday against last-place San Jose State.
The Cowboys won twice this season against the Spartans, who only won one Mountain West game and four games overall. That first win, though, required overtime Jan. 27 at San Jose, California. Wyoming had a little less trouble the second time around against the Spartans, winning by 14 on Feb. 17 in Laramie.
“Well, just looking back at both of them, what was successful and what wasn’t, obviously we played quite a bit of zone in both of them,” said Edwards, Wyoming’s second-year head coach. “The kid (Ryan) Welage did a great job at their place and a solid job here, him and the kid (Keith) Fisher. But I thought when we jumped out to our lead in the first half at their place, a lot of things were clicking for us. They were turning the ball over. I thought their second half was a lot better, and then overtime, obviously.
“And (in Laramie), again, we did a great job of not settling for shots. I heard (first-year head coach Jean Prioleau) throughout the game: ‘Protect the paint. Protect the paint.’ And our mindset to the guys was get there and spray it out, and we were able to make shots.”
Though Wyoming was predicted to finish seventh in the Mountain West, Edwards and his team had aimed higher.
“But what was a little difficult at times was juggling healthy versus non-healthy players in the sense of ankles, backs and just the common cold,” Edwards said, “to where we got knocked down to sometimes 10 people in practice and weren’t able to get what we needed to get out of it. But I thought our guys showed up each and every night and competed and in a sense put ourselves in a position to win games. But, definitely excited about that, in a sense of where we finished.”
Though Wyoming fell short of a first-round bye, they arguably got the next best thing. San Jose State lost 16 straight games to open conference play. But the Cowboys also faced a last-place team in their opening conference tournament game last year in Air Force, though the Falcons were tied for last and received the No. 10 seed. The Cowboys fell behind 25-0 in that game and never recovered in the upset.
“We can’t in any sense live off of those last two games,” Edwards said of Wyoming’s wins over the Spartans. “Got to go in with a mindset of a fresh start, because we all have a fresh start right now. And just got to key in on playing Cowboy basketball for 40 minutes.”
Edwards said freshman guard Hunter Maldonado, who missed the last three games of Wyoming’s regular season with an ankle injury, could return for the Cowboys’ postseason opener.
“I don’t know how ready Hunter will be,” Edwards said of Maldonado, who had started every conference game before his injury. “If he’s going to play, I may get him out there really, really early, if not start him, just to see where he’s at. But he’s made some good strides here, walking around without a boot, running a little bit on the floor, shooting a little bit. Again, probably want to test it early, just to get him back into playing against competition, so to speak.”
Lou Adams missed practice Monday because of a swollen knee, Edwards said, but he expects the senior guard, who was recently named sixth man of the year by Mountain West media, to play.
“Guys are still excited about the possibilities, but still focused in the sense of a one-game-at-a-time mentality,” Edwards said. “So, as we prepare, the only thing on our mind right now is San Jose State.”