LARAMIE — The basketball gods weren’t done with the University of Wyoming men’s basketball team just yet.
On top of dropping to 0-6 in the Mountain West with an 82-74 road loss to Air Force on Tuesday while being down five key players, the Cowboys’ streak of bad luck continued when the team bus got stuck in a ditch just outside of Fort Collins on the drive back to Laramie.
For third-year head coach Jeff Linder, being stuck in a bus leaning at a 45-degree angle for four hours on the side of the highway was right on par with how the rest of the season has gone. Tuesday’s loss to the Falcons dropped the Cowboys to 5-13 overall and kept UW as the only team in the Mountain West without a conference win this season.
“We had an adventurous time trying to get back from Air Force,” Linder said during Thursday’s news conference. “We got stuck on the top of Owl Canyon Road for four hours in a ditch and got home at 6:30 in the morning. It’s usually a four-hour bus ride, and it probably took eight and a half.
“It’s kind of the way the season has gone, to a certain degree.”
At this point, Linder can’t do much but laugh off the adversity barraging the Cowboys locker room on a weekly basis. Against Air Force, UW was without guards Hunter Maldonado (ribs), Brendan Wenzel (knee) and Kenny Foster (back) and forwards Hunter Thompson (mononucleosis) and Graham Ike (right foot).
Foster and Wenzel won’t return to the lineup anytime soon, Linder said. Foster recently had back surgery, and Wenzel is nursing a knee injury that knocked him out of an 80-75 home loss to San Diego State earlier this month.
Thompson and Maldonado are considered day-to-day and questionable to play against Colorado State this weekend. Ike, the preseason MW player of the year, still hasn’t played since his injury was announced five days before the season-opener in November.
Several players, including USC transfer Ethan Anderson and Noah Reynolds, have stepped into bigger roles, but it hasn’t translated to wins. The Cowboys are riding an eight-game losing streak, and have dropped 12 of their last 14 games.
“We’re missing Maldonado and Graham — that’s Wyoming basketball right there in a nutshell,” Anderson said after Tuesday’s loss to Air Force. “I’m proud of our guys. We’re giving it everything we’ve got.”
Ike’s return is still in question. His original timetable of being out six to eight weeks would have brought him back earlier this month. The junior was still sporting a walking boot on the bench against the Falcons.
“I’m not sure if he will or he won’t (return this season), but we certainly want him to,” Anderson said. “I’m not going to rush him or anything like that. He knows what it is, and he knows what we’re going through.
“It’s an injury. I’ve had injuries in my career, and the worst thing you can do is rush back, especially with him, because he has a long career ahead of him.”
While Anderson and the rest of his teammates would understand if Ike decided to sit out the rest of the season, he still knows how dangerous the team could be if Ike returned to try and make a run in the MW tournament in March.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, if Graham Ike laces his shoes up, we’re top two in the conference again,” Anderson said.
Ike was one of five key absences for the Cowboys on Tuesday. UW, a team that made the NCAA Tournament a year ago with an at-large bid, started no players against Air Force who were in the starting lineup during the Cowboys’ March Madness game against Indiana last season.
Four of the starters from last year’s March Madness game were out with injuries Tuesday, including Ike, Wenzel, Maldonado and Thompson. The other, Drake Jeffries, graduated and is playing for the Lakeland Magic in the NBA G League.
“I’d much rather have Graham Ike out there playing 35 minutes a game and Maldonado out there 35 minutes a game,” Linder said. “As I said after the game against Air Force, we had five guys out, and four of those guys started last year in the NCAA Tournament game against Indiana, and (the other), Kenny Foster, is a guy who’s been Mountain West player of the week twice.
“You have five guys there that understand what it takes to win at this level.”
Despite the long list of injuries, Linder knows the next-man-up mantra is all the Cowboys can do at this point.
“When you’ve lost eight games in a row, and you’re 0-6 in the league, you have to continue to show up every day and bring the energy that is required and continue to do the job,” Linder said. “We just have to continue to find ways to get guys better, and hopefully, by doing that, we find some ways to win games. That’s all you can do.”
The Cowboys will host the first installment of this year’s Border War with Colorado State this weekend. The Rams (10-10 overall, 2-5 MW) have also dealt with injuries all season, and have gone to overtime in their past three games, two of which ended with losses.
The Cowboys, who are still looking for their first conference win of the season, will host the Rams at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Arena-Auditorium.
“It’s hard for everybody involved,” Linder said. “Nobody wants to lose. Nobody wants to be 0-6. ... You just have to figure out a way to continue to grow and continue to get better knowing that, at any point, things can kind of flip.”
“... Like always, the Border War game is always going to be a war. We’re just looking forward to kind of seeing how we keep moving forward.”