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University of Wyoming senior Hunter Maldonado has created matchup problems for opponents early this season with his height at point guard. John Durgee/UW athletics

LARAMIE – After opening the 2021-22 season in dominant fashion, the University of Wyoming men’s basketball team is looking to carry over its success into a pair of challenging road tests.

The Cowboys left no doubt in their first two games at the Arena-Auditorium, beating Detroit Mercy and Arkansas-Pine Bluff by a combined 78 points. However, they know the road will get tougher in the near future.

UW is set to play its first game away from home tonight at Washington, which is coming off a rough 2020-21 campaign, but is only two years removed from a Pac-12 title. After that is a trip to Grand Canyon, which made its first Division I NCAA Tournament appearance this spring after winning the Western Athletic Conference.

Wyoming coach Jeff Linder is looking forward to the challenge, something he believes will help the Pokes prepare for a competitive Mountain West schedule.

“We knew with an experienced team coming back that we needed to challenge ourselves, maybe challenge ourselves a little too much,” Linder said. “For us to be a good team, and for us to compete in the Mountain West, we have to find ways to go on the road and beat good teams.

“To go to Washington, Grand Canyon and the places we’re going this fall, it’s going to be a tough challenge. But in those games, you learn a lot more about yourself than you do when you play some of the teams we’ve played at home.”

The Cowboys have impressed offensively, scoring 85 points per game – 8.4 points above last year’s MW-leading pace. The most notable change, however, has come on the other end of the floor.

UW placed an emphasis on improving defensively after ranking 301st in the country in defensive efficiency in the KenPom ratings. So far, this effort has translated to the court.

The Pokes held their first two opponents under 50 points for the first time since 1981, with Detroit Mercy and UAPB combining to shoot just 30% from the field and 21% on 3-point attempts.

“Coach has been harping on us since June to sit down and guard,” senior guard Drake Jeffries said. “I think we’ve finally realized how important that is, and we’ve all come together as a collective and decided we aren’t going to win games if we don’t guard. That’s the key to winning these games.”

Sophomore forward Graham Ike flashed signs of potential in limited action last year, and appears to have taken significant strides during the offseason.

Ike is averaging 21.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in 26.3 minutes per game, leaving opponents with two choices on defense: accept a mismatch in the post, or call a double-team and leave open shooters for a team that’s hitting over 40% of its attempts from deep.

“If you come in here in the mornings, you’ll see him at 6:30 or 7,” Linder said. “He’s a morning guy, and usually guys that are really good like to get up in the morning when everybody else is sleeping. He’s a guy that’s here all the time, and that’s why he’s a really good player. He puts forth the effort – not just on the court, but in the weight room, and he does a really good job in the classroom, as well.”

Senior guard Hunter Maldonado is another Cowboy that’s created matchup problems for opposing defenses, with Sunday’s win over UAPB serving as a prime example.

Utilizing a six-inch height advantage over his primary defender, Maldonado racked up 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting, six rebounds, four assists and three steals.

“It’s changed our offense a ton,” sophomore forward Jeremiah Oden said. “He’s a really good decision-maker with the ball and a really special talent when it comes to passing, and he can also score when the opportunity is there. It just makes it easier for the other four guys on the court.”

While the Pokes haven’t had trouble finding success so far, they’ll get a true gauge of how far they’ve come tonight against a talented Huskies squad. Given recent history, though, they’re entering the test with ample confidence.

UW’s first road game last season came against another Pac-12 foe in Oregon State. The Beavers ultimately won the conference tournament on their way to the Elite Eight, but it was the Cowboys that escaped Corvallis, Oregon, with a 76-73 victory in early December.

“I remember around this time last year we went to Oregon State and did something crazy,” Jeffries said. “We beat them, so I’m expecting the same thing – to go to Seattle and try to catch a road win.”

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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