Short Bench, Consistent Rotation Spur Cowboys Turnaround
LARAMIE -- Jeff Linder has faced a number of challenges through the first month of the season.
Injuries have been at the forefront.
Graham Ike suffered a lower-leg injury that has kept the Preseason Mountain West Player of the Year selection out of the lineup. He could return sometime in January -- "or February or March" -- according to Wyoming's third-year head coach.
That's an average of nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds under a black walking boot. That doesn't account for the list of intangibles the 6-foot-9, 255-pound junior brings to the floor, mainly drawing double teams.
Hunter Maldonado, the team's unquestioned senior leader, has missed time with a concussion. Noah Reynolds has been limited and even missed the Cowboys' tilt with Santa Clara because of cramping. An ailing back kept Brendan Wenzel out of the lineup and Ethan Anderson battled an illness that also sidelined the USC transfer for a home meeting with Grand Canyon.
"There are some excuses," Linder said. "I mean, we've had more injuries to key players in any team in the country. It takes time to adjust."
Expectations haven't been met. Plenty of that has to do with the carnage listed above. Consistency is in the same boat. The constant moving pieces have led to little continuity.
Has Linder and Co. finally found a solution?
Wyoming (5-5) has won two straight, eclipsing the 90-point mark in victories over Texas A&M-Commerce and a much-tougher Louisiana Tech squad last Saturday in Laramie. The Cowboys, led by Reynolds, who was crowned the conference player of the week, drilled better than 50% of their collective shots from the field. The sophomore guard netted a career-high 30 against the Lions and added 20 more against the Bulldogs.
He came off the bench.
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The starting five, for the first time this season, remained the same in consecutive outings. Linder said he was going to shorten his bench, tighten the rotation.
Three leftovers from the Allen Edwards' era -- Kenny Foster, Hunter Thompson and Maldonado -- are on the floor for the opening jump. So is Xavier DuSell and Wenzel. That's four guards and a post, one of the Cowboys' smaller lineups.
It's been working.
"It takes time," Linder reiterated last Saturday night. "You can't adjust if you can't work in practice with the guys who are actually going to play in the game ... The group that you saw out there tonight was a group that allows you to win games and helps you win games because they're connected."
Wyoming has turned the ball over just 13 times over its last two games. The team has added 32 assists in that timeframe. In the win over La Tech, the Cowboys hit 14 triples, led by Wenzel, who drained 5-of-7 attempts from deep.
If it wasn't for Reynolds' big week, Foster could've -- should've -- been another deserving candidate for the league's weekly honors.
The senior (We think? Linder joked when asked if Foster received a medical redshirt after missing the majority of the 2021-22 campaign, saying "he has some years left") finished in double-figures in both victories. He also snagged eight rebounds and found himself, like always, in the dirty areas, diving for loose balls or battling for position against much bigger men in the paint.
Wyoming gives out a hardhat after each win. That goes to the hardest working player on the floor. So, it's no surprise that Foster, known to his teammates as "The Red Rocket," was sporting new head gear last Saturday night.
"Kenny Foster has a tremendous basketball IQ," Linder said. "I mean, he sees things before a lot of other guys do. One, it makes him a really good cutter, but then also too from a defensive standpoint."
When Linder has gone to his bench, he's called on guys like Reynolds, Jeremiah Oden and Anderson. Even redshirt freshman Nate Barnhart has played 11 minutes over the last two outings.
"I think Nate's starting to give us really good minutes," he said of the forward. "I mean, you just can't teach 7-feet and his ability to protect the rim. He has the ability to go and catch those quick finishes and go and dunk them. Then he's skilled enough to play on the perimeter."
Max Agbonkpolo did not play in either of the last two games. The 6-foot-9 junior transfer from USC last played Dec. 3. He scored five points and pulled down six rebounds in a home loss to Grand Canyon. That night he shot 2-of-8 from the field and turned the ball over twice. UCLA transfer Jake Kyman didn't see the floor in the win over La Tech. He netted three points on 1-of-4 shooting in the victory over Texas A&M-Commerce.
True freshman Caden Powell didn't play against the Bulldogs. Linder said that was a matchup decision.
"It's a long season and that's just part of it," he said. "You have to be ready for the opportunity when the opportunity presents itself. There's no feeling sorry for yourself, there's no pouting. You know, you don't have to like the fact that you didn't play, but understand why you're not playing."
Wyoming will head to Chicago Saturday to take on the University of Dayton (6-5) inside Chicago's United Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. Mountain Time.
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