LAS VEGAS — As Wyoming went through what turned out to be one of the worst seasons in program history, head coach Allen Edwards consistently made reference to the Cowboys’ best player.
It had as much to do with Justin James’ intangibles as his talent.
There’s obviously a lot to like about James’ game, and it’s hard to imagine Wyoming winning the eight games it did without him. The do-it-all senior guard and bonafide NBA draft prospect put the finishing touches on one of the most prolific careers in Wyoming basketball history with a 31-point outing in the Cowboys’ 78-68 loss to New Mexico in the Mountain West tournament Wednesday and set career-highs in points (22.1), rebounds (8.5) and assists (4.4) this season.
“But what I thought JJ did this year, not even from carrying this team for so long but what he did from a leadership standpoint, is going to be well-impacted with these young men,” Edwards said.
Edwards constantly praised James’ focus and preparation when it would’ve been easy for him to check out mentally as the losses piled up. Injuries, suspensions and other defections cost four potential starters at least half the season and trimmed the Cowboys’ rotation to seven scholarship players at one point, and Wyoming couldn’t recover.
A non-conference win over Southeastern Conference foe South Carolina and a 74-66 win over rival Colorado State were among the few highlights as Wyoming lost 14 of its 18 conference games by an average of 18.5 points. The Cowboys’ 24 losses are the most in program history, and their 25 winning percentage is the lowest since the 1973-74 team won just 15.4 percent of its games.
Yet James, by all accounts, didn’t just go through the motions at practice and in games. And he continued to play strategic basketball, looking to keep his teammates involved when it would’ve been tempting to force the issue offensively — even with the extra attention he got from opposing defenses, given the lack of experienced options that were on the court with him.
Wyoming went through the full conference schedule with four freshmen in its rotation. Pine Bluffs native Hunter Thompson was going to get consistent minutes regardless after redshirting last season, but TJ Taylor, Brandon Porter and Trace Young played because they had to. The numbers got so dire late in the non-conference schedule that Young had his redshirt pulled while another freshman, Tariq Johnson, was starting to see his minutes increase until a heart condition sidelined him for good in January.
The numbers forced the Cowboys to go away from the up-tempo style that ranked them in the top 20 nationally in adjusted offensive tempo in Edwards’ first two seasons at the helm, according to Kenpom.com. Execution in the half court was spotty with that much youth on the floor. Turnovers were a major problem (third-most in the MW). So was rebounding (league-worst minus-7.3 differential).
James was the proverbial glue that held it all together, but he had some help. Back and knee injuries limited Hunter Maldonado to eight games this season, but the sophomore forward stayed engaged on the bench, Edwards said. Speaking up multiple times with locker-room speeches, Maldonado supplied positive reinforcement and constructive criticism when he deemed it necessary.
“Hunter Maldonado might be on of the best leaders I’ve ever been around from a character standpoint with that he does on the floor, what he does off the floor and what he does in the classroom,” Edwards said. “Not having him physically on the floor hurt, but he was just as much of a voice to these young guys as any.”
Said Young, “We’ve learned a lot from them. How to act, how things are supposed to look, how to carry yourself on and off the court and obviously learning things basketball-wise from them as well.”
The chances of having to deal with the same mass attrition next season are slim. But with James and senior big Jordan Naughton out of eligibility, it’s up to the youngsters to take their game up a notch if Wyoming wants to avoid a repeat of this season’s results.
Edwards said he’s hopeful everything they’ve experienced this year will benefit a maturity process that’s been accelerated.
“When you look at what these young kids had to go through this year and then you’re adding pieces back in, it’s not like I’m saying next year we go from four (wins) to winning a championship,” Edwards said. “What’s wrong I guess sometimes with society is nobody likes the process, and this is a part of the process. These young men worked hard this year, got better, and they went through something that I couldn’t simulate in practice. That can only help them going forward.”