LARAMIE – Statistics don’t always tell the whole story of a player’s impact on a game.
Freshman forward Graham Ike – playing in his first college game Friday after spending the past year recovering from a knee injury he sustained as a high school senior – didn’t light up the box score in his University of Wyoming debut against Nevada.
Nine minutes. No points. Three rebounds. Four turnovers. Five personal fouls. Not exactly a banner night, per se.
But for Cowboys coach Jeff Linder, Ike just being on the floor made all the difference in a game that saw more swings than a Mike Tyson title fight.
After UW lead by 20 points in the second half Friday, the Wolf Pack battled back to take the lead. The Cowboys remained undeterred, however, and roared back to win a thrilling 71-64 matchup at Arena-Auditorium.
Ike might only be listed at 6-foot-9, but he has a nearly 7-foot-6 wingspan, according to Linder. That length is a gamechanger for a Cowboys (9-5 overall, 3-4 Mountain West) team that lacks a consistent interior presence.
UW’s tallest players, redshirt junior forward Hunter Thompson and sophomore forward Eoin Nelson are each 6-foot-10. Thompson plays largely on the perimeter, however, and Nelson is out indefinitely with a left foot injury.
Ike’s return comes at a time when the Cowboys need him most.
“There’s a presence. I told you he wasn’t going to be Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar). He was more probably Willis Reed, coming down the tunnel,” Linder said. “He gets thrown into the mix in a high-level Division I game against good players. I knew it was it wasn’t going to be perfect, but he just provides a presence. He’s so physical.”
UW isn’t going to frequently win the rebounding battle, having lost the battle by nearly four boards per night on average this season. But Ike makes things easier for all of his teammates by simply standing tall and standing his ground under the basket.
“You just see him, when he’s going up to the rim. … it’s just a different presence,” Linder said. “And then on the defensive boards, I mean, he’s not going to get pushed underneath. And, so he provides a good balance.”
Defensively, the size Ike brings to the table makes driving to the hoop a lot more difficult than it is otherwise. The Cowboys have been frequently outscored in the paint this season, including a 32-20 edge by the Wolf Pack (10-6, 5-4) in Friday night’s game.
As Ike gets reacclimated to being in games and in-game situations, opposing offenses can expect to be challenged at the rim by Ike more and more frequently. Even if it was just a glimpse, sophomore guard Kwane Marble II, who played AAU ball with Ike in Colorado, came away impressed.
“His presence out there, his ginormous wingspan, covered up a lot of ground, had a lot of people – a lot of Nevada’s players, second guessing whether or not they should attack the basket,” Marble said. “And his presence was big tonight.”
Perhaps as big as his presence on the court, however, is what he does in the huddle for his teammates, Linder said. Despite still being a teenager, Ike has a unique ability to rally the troops and lead. It’s a big reason why Linder recruited him out of Overland High in Aurora, Colorado.
Size and strength are great. But Linder has made a pointed effort during his short time as UW’s coach to recruit high-character players, players who are willing to put in the work and know that the current rebuild isn’t going to provide instant gratification.
Ike is one such shining example.
“He just has one of those, infectious personalities that just kind of just brings all the young guys, the old guys, he just kind of brings everybody together,” Linder said. “And that’s what I kind of knew, just from having recruited him.
“You know, as much as I love him as a basketball player, I mean, his personality, his smile, his character, is what excited me the most … All you’re going to see is him get better and better.”