LARAMIE – The 2020-21 college basketball season was an unprecedented roller coaster that impacted teams across the country in countless ways, and the University of Wyoming was no exception.

In addition to navigating COVID protocols, cancellations and roster shortages, the Cowboys were tasked with learning a new system under first-year coach Jeff Linder, without a true offseason to do so.

Despite these unusual circumstances, UW took notable strides forward in Linder’s inaugural season in Laramie. The Pokes went 14-11, more than doubling their winning percentage from a forgettable 9-24 campaign the year prior, while picking up a road win over an Oregon State team that came one-game shy of reaching the Final Four.

With a full off-season in their new coach’s system and the bulk of their contributors returning, senior leader Hunter Maldonado – who led UW in assists and rebounds and ranked second in scoring last year – says the Cowboys are already reaping the benefits.

“It was very beneficial,” Maldonado said. “We have a whole year under our belts of knowing the offense and knowing what he’s looking for. A lot of times when you go through a coaching change you have to pick up on different habits and things that a coach looks for, so figuring out those things and knowing how he wants it to look has been very beneficial.”

Linder has witnessed growth as well, with the coach noting that a somewhat normal off-season will pay dividends on the defensive end particularly.

“The growth we made just by being able to play and do what we normally would do in a regular practice setting definitely paid off,” Linder said. “It will really pay off on the defensive end of the floor, just in terms of the habits, the discipline and the effort that’s needed to be a good defensive team.”

With a lack of numbers being a recurring theme last year, whether due to injuries or COVID issues, the Cowboys were unable to get as much practice in 5-on-5 settings as they would’ve liked. That hasn’t been the case for far this fall.

“We had a lot more sense of normalcy this past summer, and leading up to our first practice today with the 14 workouts we had this fall,” Linder said. “Last year because of COVID, because of our lack of bodies ... we weren’t able to do a lot of the things you’d normally do. Especially from a 5-on-5 standpoint, because you had to make sure you got guys to the game.

“For me and the way I like to practice, 5-on-5 is probably 90% of what we do. Over the 22 practices we had this summer, the reps we got 5-on-5 really made up for the lost time we had. They say Year 1, but it was almost like Year 0 because you really couldn’t lay the foundation in terms of some of the things you want to do. This fall once school started, we had 14 workouts. I think in those 14 workouts we had almost 1,400 possessions of 5-on-5.”

In addition to getting back to relative normalcy, the Pokes are also poised to benefit from a sense of cohesiveness. They return nine players from last season’s turnaround, including 68% of their scoring and 80% of their rebounding production.

“We bring a lot of guys back that played some minutes for us last year, so we’re not starting from the bottom and working from a new slate,” Maldonado said. “We’re picking up right where we left off last year. We’re hitting the ground running, and that’s getting us prepared a lot quicker than last year.”

Filling the void

While the Cowboys bring back the bulk of their pieces from last fall, there is one notable name missing.

Mountain West freshman of the year Marcus Williams, who averaged a team-high 14.8 points and 4.3 assists per game last season, transferred to Texas A&M in April.

Maldonado and junior college transfer Deng Dut are among those slated to fill this void. Freshman guard Noah Reynolds has turned heads as well since arriving in Laramie, and appears poised to help replace Williams’ production and role on the court.

“It’s going to be by committee, but early on Deng is getting a lot of reps at the one, Maldo is getting a lot of reps at the one and Noah Reynolds is getting a lot of reps at the one,” Linder said. “Noah is a freshman ... and from a body standpoint, that’s usually the biggest thing that keeps freshmen from playing – just the physicality. But he’s 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, and he’s been really good offensively since he’s gotten here.

“He has a ways to go defensively in terms of understanding the discipline and effort you need to compete every possession and beat good teams at this level, but he’s a kid that wants to be really good. He’s really competitive and he’s in the office all the time watching film, just trying to get better.”

Post presence

The frontcourt is expected to be a strength for the Pokes, thanks to the presence of Maldonado and sophomore forward Graham Ike.

The duo combined to average 23.7 points and 12.2 rebounds per game last season, showing immense signs of promise once Ike returned from injury in January.

If not for the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic, Ike likely wouldn’t have seen the court for UW last season. However, due to this development, he was able to appear in 12 games – including seven starts – without having to burn a redshirt.

“It was one of those deals where it was actually one of the good things about COVID, probably the only thing,” Linder said. “He actually was able to play and get real reps. If not, if COVID doesn’t exist and you don’t get that free year, we were going to redshirt him.

“That was the plan all along, so for him to have the opportunity to come back in the middle of January and be able to get the amount of games and amount of minutes and amount of reps he got in, it’s only going to make him that much better this year. As good as people thought he was last year, they have no idea what they’re about to see.”

”Dirtier than recruiting”

The Cowboys won’t have any high-profile opponents coming to Laramie during nonconference play, but it isn’t for a lack of trying. UW currently has home games scheduled against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Hastings College, University of Denver, McNeese State and Utah Valley.

Linder says that scheduling is one of the toughest jobs for a college basketball coach today, with the altitude and the Pokes’ recent success making some opponents wary of making the trip to Wyoming.

“I think it’s always been an issue at Wyoming,” Linder said. “One, location. It’s amazing what 7,220 (feet) will do to people’s minds. Then when you’re perceived to be good or are going to be good, you’re going to have a hard time finding the teams that the fans want to see come here. Those teams aren’t coming here. If you look at Power Five teams and look at their nonconference schedule, look how many road games they’re playing. Not very many.

“Most of those will be home games where they’re buying teams, or they’re able to get those neutral site games. It’s not from a lack of trying. For those people that don’t think (we are), come try to do it for a month and you’ll see how hard it really is. It’s probably the worst thing we have to do. There are a lot of moving parts in scheduling. A lot of lies ... it’s probably dirtier than recruiting.”

While they might not be taking place at Arena-Auditorium, there are still marquee nonconference matchups on UW’s schedule. This includes road trips to Washington, Grand Canyon and Arizona, as well as the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii, featuring Stanford, Liberty and Northern Iowa.

Linder and his team are excited about the opportunity to use these games as an avenue to get better, while also boosting the profile of the program.

“If you want to be a good team, you have to go play good teams and you have to beat good teams,” Linder said. “We as a program have to continue to build our reputation and continue to build as a program, so now you can go play Arizona on a neutral court or try to get a home-and-home with Colorado, knowing that if they win a game like that it’s a top-100, tier-one game. As opposed to losing a game like that, it might be the difference between them not making the NCAA Tournament.

“That’s my job and it’s our players’ job to continue to build, to where now you can attract teams like that. In the meantime, we have to try to do as good a job as we can at getting quality opponents here.”

Josh Criswell covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at jcriswell@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @criswell_sports.

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