LAS VEGAS — There was probably a collective sigh of relief when the University of Wyoming men’s basketball team’s season ended this week.
The Cowboys endured one of the most adversity-riddled seasons of any college basketball team in the country, a campaign that revolved around injuries, illnesses and three midseason departures from a trio of California transfers. UW’s bad luck extended off the court, as well, with one example being the team’s eight-hour delay driving back from the Air Force Academy after its bus slid into a ditch.
The blows didn’t stop when the Cowboys traveled to Las Vegas for the Mountain West tournament this week. Jeff Linder, who’s in his third season as UW’s head coach, never made the trip.
Linder missed the Cowboys’ 87-76 loss to New Mexico in the first round of the conference tournament Wednesday to spend time with his ailing father in Colorado. Just hours after UW’s season ended, the school announced Linder’s father, Bruce, died early Thursday morning.
“My family and I would like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during such a difficult time,” Linder said in the school’s news release. “My dad was a great husband, a great father and a great grandfather. We will miss him dearly, but we know now he’s in a better place.”
The loss against the Lobos in the conference tournament was the second game Linder missed to spend time with his father this season. Associate coach Sundance Wicks filled in for Linder as acting head coach during the conference tournament game.
“This is part of the process, man,” Wicks said after the game. “My college coach, Don Meyer, used to say, ‘If you coach long enough, you’ll see everything.’ This is one of those years where you saw everything in a year.
“Usually, you get one of these things throughout the course of a year. ... You know, God doesn’t give you things that you can’t handle. So, for this program, for the coaches, all of this stuff is an adversity assist, right? You have to look at it in a forward positive way of thinking. You have to look at things relentlessly optimistic and know it’s not going to be this way forever.”
Super-seniors Hunter Maldonado and Hunter Thompson played in their final game with the Cowboys in Las Vegas after spending six years with the program. Wicks opened his postgame news conference with nothing but praise for the pair who stuck through mediocrity and a coaching change midway through their careers.
“I don’t envy the undefeated or those who don’t have scars,” Wicks said. “I don’t envy anybody that has a clean run in this race. I respect the hell out of these two dudes. It’s hard to talk about because people don’t usually remember how you played. They remember what you gave.
“When you can serve like they have served, and you can lead like they have led, because you don’t become a leader in the good times, you become a leader in the tough times. They’ll learn how to be better family men and fathers and husbands because of this, because they know what it’s like to persevere.”
Maldonado left it all on the court during his final game in a Cowboys uniform. He went out with a career-high 36 points, five rebounds and three assists before fouling out with just over one minute left against the Lobos.
“Maldo shows up every day and is the same person,” Wicks said. “To me, that’s what this story is about. We decide what we write as humans. We don’t get to let anybody else tell the story. Maldo said this in the locker room. ... You know, you can give everything you’ve got every single day your entire career and still not have the fairytale ending. Most people don’t get the fairytale ending.”
Out of 13 scholarship spots on the roster, the Cowboys will have at least five available going into the recruiting cycle this summer. UW will lose Maldonado and Thompson to graduation, and will need to replace California transfers Max Agbonkpolo, Ethan Anderson and Jake Kyman, who left the team last month.
The biggest question for Linder and the Cowboys is if Graham Ike and Noah Reynolds will return to Laramie for another season. Ike was voted the MW preseason player of the year but didn’t play a game this season with a right foot injury, and Reynolds was shut down because of concussions after leading the team in scoring through the month of February.
Everybody on the roster will have a decision to make this offseason about whether to return next winter, including Xavier DuSell, Jeremiah Oden, Brendan Wenzel, Nate Barnhart, Caden Powell and Kenny Foster.
“In this world right now, everybody gets a choice,” Wicks said. “Everybody gets to make a decision. It used to be, you know, if someone decided to leave, they had to sit out a year. Maybe they weighed that choice a little bit differently. Now it’s free-99 for everybody.
“Everybody has a choice. At the end of the day, that’s why you have offseason meetings. You go back and sit down and reconvene. Everybody gets to talk about what’s going to happen next.”
This season was Linder’s first with a losing record at UW after finishing 14-11 in 2020 and 25-9 a year ago. The Cowboys ended the year 9-22 overall and 4-14 in the MW.
“We’re going to use that as an edge going forward because we’re going to remember every single thing that happened this year,” Wicks said. “It’s blazed inside you. It’s just burned inside you. You feel these things at such a high level that, you know, if it’s June 18 and we’re in the middle of a summer practice and we start to see a little bit of slippage, we’re going to talk about, ‘All right, so we remember what last year was. We remember how we felt last year. So let’s crank it up right now. Let’s get it going.’
“That’s all you need to spark a little bit of fire. To spark a little bit of, you know what, it’s not going to be like this again. That’s our responsibility as coaches and our responsibility as leaders, is to constantly remind and reinforce what it was when we felt like this, so we try to not feel like this again next year.”