LARAMIE — Wyoming’s historically bad season wasn’t all for nothing. At least not for the Cowboys’ freshmen.
Four of them were a part of Wyoming’s rotation, though that was far from the plan. Hunter Thompson, a rare four-star, in-state recruit two years ago out of Pine Bluffs, was always going to be part of it after redshirting last season, but the Cowboys’ mass attrition forced TJ Taylor, Trace Young and Brandon Porter into significantly more minutes than anyone anticipated.
“I see it as a great learning experience to get some experience and some playing time that a lot of freshmen around the country don’t get,” Taylor said. “Even at these high-major schools, a lot of these freshmen don’t get the minutes I played. I got to accelerate my learning curve. I really don’t feel like I’m a freshman anymore.”
They made up half of Wyoming’s rotation by the time the season ended Wednesday with a 78-68 quarterfinal loss to New Mexico in the Mountain West tournament. Thompson, Taylor and Young each logged more than 25 minutes per game while even Porter (9.8) played in all but one of Wyoming’s 32 games and made one start.
It was rarely pretty with so much youth surrounding Mountain West scoring leader Justin James. Only San Jose State and New Mexico turned it over at a higher rate in the league than the Cowboys, who also ranked 10th in field-goal percentage (41.6) and last in scoring (65.8) and rebounding margin (minus-7.3).
Despite James finishing in the league’s top 6 in scoring, rebounding and assists, Wyoming won back-to-back games just once all season. The Cowboys lost more games than any team in program history, and their 8-24 record made for the lowest winning percentage since the 1973-74 team won just 15.4 percent of its games.
“We were thrown into the fire earlier than we thought we’d be,” said Thompson, who averaged 8.8 points and 2.9 rebounds in 28.6 minutes per game. “But I really, truly believe we took steps individually and collectively. It may not have shown, but from whenever we started practicing to now, it’s day and night. It was a lot of circumstances we couldn’t control.”
Young’s contributions in particular characterized the group’s consistent inconsistency. The 6-foot-9, 180-pound wing was in line to redshirt before two season-ending injuries, a knee injury to Jake Hendricks, Ny Redding’s indefinite suspension and Lwal Dung’s decision to leave the team in December forced head coach Allen Edwards to yank it just before the start of conference play.
Young was immediately inserted into the started lineup and started 12 straight games before being moved to the bench in seven of the last eight games he played. He started his career with three straight games in double figures but averaged just 6.8 points by the end of the season.
“This is the roughest year of basketball I’ve ever been through, so I guess you could go with a lot of different angles with the things you’ve learned,” Young said. “I’d say the most important to me is just being consistent. My minutes fluctuated the whole year. I went from a redshirt to a starter to two minutes and back to 25 minutes. I guess the biggest thing for me personally is just learning how to be consistent.”
As rough as the season was, the experience was invaluable for a group that now finds itself as the emerging nucleus for a team that’s losing James, Redding and fellow senior Jordan Naughton. That’s assuming they’re all back next season in an age where transferring is almost the norm, though Young and Taylor both said the group plans to return intact.
“You hope nobody ever leaves, but that’s never something that’s even brought up,” Young said.
Wyoming won’t exactly be a seasoned team next season, either. As the roster’s currently constructed, Hendricks and A.J. Banks would be the lone scholarship seniors on a team that’s adding two signees from the Colorado prep ranks in guards Kenny Foster and Kwane Marble Jr. Another freshman, Tariq Johnson, is still waiting to see if he’ll be cleared to return next season after having his season shut down because of a heart condition.
But this year’s youngsters are counting on the lumps that came sooner than expected to pay off in the future.
“You don’t get to go through the process like a lot of other freshmen in the country. You’re thrown into the fire right away,” Young said. “I think that helps us a lot going forward.”