LARAMIE — Wyoming is confident in its ability to put the ball in the basket.
Why shouldn’t the Cowboys be? All-everything senior guard Justin James, the Mountain West’s leading returning scorer, is on pace for a career year in his final collegiate season. Hunter Maldonado, when healthy, is averaging 13.8 points while newcomer Jake Hendricks is adding 13.1 points per game for a team that’s put up at least 75 points in half of its games.
“That isn’t the side of the ball we’re worrying about right now,” said James, who’s leading the MW in scoring at 24.5 points per game.
Wyoming coach Allen Edwards talked at length about the Cowboys focusing on their defense leading up to the season. With Wyoming one-third of the way through its season, it’s still an area that needs plenty of attention.
The Cowboys have lost four of those aforementioned 75-point games because of their inability to get stops. The latest was a 90-87 overtime setback to Denver on Tuesday, one in which the Pioneers shot 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range on the way to their second-highest point total of the season.
Wyoming is allowing 78.8 points per game, second-most in the MW. The Cowboys are also ninth in the 11-team conference in field-goal percentage defense (45.4). They’re forcing nearly 13 turnovers a game, but it barely negates the 12 times they’re coughing the ball up on average.
“We have a team full of scorers,” James said. “It’s defending, getting stops, rebounding and running in transition I feel like are the main things.”
So what are the issues?
Start with Wyoming’s laundry list of injuries, which have largely depleted the frontcourt. Freshman forward Hunter Thompson is back from the concussion that forced him to miss five games earlier this season, but fellow forward Austin Mueller is done for the season with a torn ACL. The Cowboys are also waiting for senior big Jordan Naughton to return to the rotation.
Naughton, who suffered a partially torn LCL during the Cowboys’ exhibition game on Nov. 1, has been cleared to work his way back into full-contact practices and will be back for Wyoming’s game against Dixie State on Dec. 29 at the latest, Edwards said, but Wyoming’s current lack of size has forced Edwards to go with more zone than past seasons, a move that ideally doubles as prevention against foul trouble.
With newcomers TJ Taylor, Brandon Porter and A.J. Banks getting more minutes to help pick up the slack, it’s made for a learning process in a defense that’s largely new to everybody.
“It’s tough sometimes when you’re communicating something in timeouts, whether it be on the board or verbally communicating it, and we go out there and we don’t execute,” Edwards said.
The Cowboys’ undersized rotation has also been a detriment on the glass as Wyoming has given its opponents plenty of second chances. Only New Mexico has a worse rebounding margin in the MW than Wyoming (minus-6), which has been outrebounded in three straight games and had its worst performance on the boards against Denver.
The Pioneers finished plus-21 on the glass and had 13 offensive rebounds, including a tip-in in overtime that put them ahead for good with 21 seconds left.
“Ball watching instead of trying to hit our man and remove him,” Thompson said. “I know personally I caught myself doing that a couple times. I think as a collective unit, we need to listen to what Coach Edwards is preaching and go hit a man before we go get the rebound.”
In other words, the Cowboys blame their effort as much as their physical limitations, an area that took a step back after Wyoming had its most complete defensive showing against South Carolina in its previous game. Wyoming held the Gamecocks to 33 percent shooting from the floor, including a 15-percent clip from 3-point range.
But the Cowboys had trouble finding the Pioneers in transition at times and even setting up its half-court defense after makes as Denver shot 55 percent from the field in the first half and rarely cooled off, hitting four of its six shots in overtime. All but three of Wyoming’s opponents have shot at least 47 percent against the Cowboys this season.
“It’s not that we don’t have the ability to sprint back on defense and get in front of the ball,” James said. “It’s just communication and a lack of edge.”
That leaves plenty of self-reflection for the Cowboys if they want to start reversing the trend.
“This whole thing is about getting back on defense and rebounding the ball,” James said. “There were so many transition layups and transition 3s that are our fault. And the rebounding, that’s on us as well.”