CHEYENNE – Graham Ike gave University of Wyoming men’s basketball fans a tantalizing glimpse at his potential during limited playing time as a true freshman.
The 6-foot-9, 245-pounder averaged 11.2 points and 5.4 rebounds across the Cowboys’ final 12 games last season. He started seven of those contests after missing the first half of the season while rehabilitating a right knee injury.
Ike was a force in the paint for the Cowboys, helping them go 14-11 and advance to the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament. He showed he had the potential to be a force in the league for years to come.
Fully healthy, Ike spent the off-season working with UW’s strength and conditioning staff and practicing with his Cowboys teammates to knock the rust off his ball-handling and outside shooting. Both of those skills were on display during UW’s intra-squad scrimmage Saturday afternoon at Storey Gym in Cheyenne.
Ike knocked down a couple 3-pointers and also brought the ball up the court in transition a couple times.
“It’s hard to guard a point guard when he grabs a rebound and pushes it up the floor, but there are very few teams that have a (center) who can grab a rebound and push the ball up the floor,” second-year Cowboys coach Jeff Linder said. “He allows us to do a lot of different things and allows us to be really hard to guard.
“When you have a guy like him who can play inside-outside and a guy like (Hunter) Maldonado who can play inside-outside, it creates paint touches. That’s the name of the game offensively.”
What Ike showed Saturday was merely the tip of the iceberg, Maldonado said.
“He has been showing us all summer what he’s capable of and how much he actually brings to the table,” senior guard Hunter Maldonado said. “I can’t wait until everyone else can see what we’ve seen.”
Outside shooting and ball-handling were both weapons in Ike’s arsenal when he was suiting up for Overland High in Aurora, Colorado. They helped make Ike a three-star recruit according to Rivals.com.
However, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and suffered partial tears of the lateral collateral and medial collateral ligaments during the second game of his senior season. Ike wasn’t able to have surgery to repair the knee until January 2020. Many schools that were recruiting him backed off after the injury, knowing it would sideline him for the entirety of his first season on campus.
Linder had been recruiting Ike for two seasons when he was roaming the sideline at Northern Colorado, and didn’t hesitate to offer Ike a spot on UW’s roster.
“I could tell while I was recruiting him that some coaches had no idea what they were looking at, and then he got hurt,” Linder said. “Now his body has completely changed and he moves so much better than he did in high school. You could always see it.
“The thing that makes him special is his brain and how quickly he processes the game and can make decisions.”
Ike would have redshirted last season if the NCAA hadn’t given all athletes who played during the COVID-19 pandemic an additional season of eligibility. Ike suited up last season because he could help the Cowboys immediately and still have four years of eligibility remaining.
That playing experience was invaluable, Ike said.
“I learned how to really grind and do good, quality work instead of just working to work,” he said.
Ike now looks back on his injury and rehab fondly.
“It was the best year of my life,” he said. “I got the game back after learning it could be taken away at any time. You have to cherish the moments you’re on the court and with your teammates. Even the bus rides, practices and team meals and hotel stays on the road.”
Prior to Saturday’s scrimmage, Linder told the crowd the Cowboys would play three 10-minute periods instead of four because they only had 13 players available.
Junior guard Kenny Foster had a walking boot on his right foot. Linder told the crowd Foster popped his ankle during practice, but it isn’t expected to keep him out for a prolonged period of time.
Sophomore Xavier DuSell was in sweats. Linder didn’t mention what injury had sidelined the guard, but said he could be cleared to practice as early as Tuesday.
Linder moved a few players from one team to the next between each period of the scrimmage. The Brown squad – which initially included multi-year starters (Maldonado and Hunter Thompson) and players who got starts last winter (Ike, Drake Jeffries and Jeremiah Oden) – won each period, outscoring the Gold group 77-32 overall. The third period was the closest score-wise, finishing 25-16.
Ahead of schedule
Linder told reporters prior to the start of official practice that this year’s club was ahead of where last year’s team was because it faced fewer practice limitations related to COVID-19. He reiterated that point Saturday, saying the Cowboys have close to 60 practices under their belts.
UW was able to get a number of 5-on-5 reps, which Maldonado called invaluable.
“Last year, we couldn’t play 5-on-5 because we didn’t want a lot of people being on the floor at once and losing them to contact tracing,” he said. “We also were limited in how long we were on the court. Being somewhat back to normal has been super beneficial.”
The stop in Cheyenne was supposed to be UW’s second outreach event in as many weeks. However, the Pokes’ Oct. 2 stop in Sheridan had to be canceled due to COVID-19 issues.
A good-size crowd showed up at Storey Gym on Saturday, filling the lower portion of the north bleachers and a few rows in the upper section.
“It’s huge for us to get out to these communities because they’re the ones that drive from all over to support us,” Maldonado said. “To be able to come to them and show them what we’ve been working on is exciting. It’s very beneficial for both of us.
“It was great to see so many people here, and we just have to thank them all for their support and taking time out of their day to come watch what we’ve been working on. We appreciate it for sure.”
The Cowboys will play their final public intra-squad scrimmage next Saturday. That event starts two hours before kickoff of the UW football team’s home game with Fresno State. That kickoff time won’t be announced until this coming week.
“This is what we need because we’re kind of in the dog days of practice right now,” Linder said. “We’ve been practicing in the summer and leading up to official practices. For our guys to simulate more of a real game is what we needed.”