It is the start of a new season for the University of Wyoming men’s basketball team.
After a disappointing and tremulous nonconference portion of the schedule that resulted in a 4-9 record, UW opens Mountain West play at 7 tonight against Boise State at the Arena-Auditorium.
The Cowboys also hope to stop a trend that led to many of those nonconference losses – first-half struggles.
They trailed at halftime 11 of 13 games, and won only two. The average deficit was 10 points. Only three times was the deficit within two possessions. UW trailed by double-digits twice, including 32 points against East Tennessee State where it made only one basket over the first 20 minutes.
UW has outscored its foes in seven of the 11 games it trailed at halftime. And, the Cowboys have 123 more points in the second half compared to the first.
There are several factors for the first-half woes, but the glaring one is personnel.
Since the season-opener against UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 6, UW has used 10 different starting lineups. Injuries have resulted in three players likely being out for the season. One who is done for sure is sophomore forward Austin Mueller (right knee). The return of sophomore guard Hunter Maldonado (back, left knee and left ankle) and junior guard Jake Hendricks (right knee) is unlikely. Senior point guard Nyaires Redding (suspension), and true freshman Tariq Johnson (medical issue) are out and it is uncertain if and when they will return.
Junior forward Lwal Dung, one of eight new players at the start of the season, left to return to his home country of Australia because he was homesick. He also will pursue a professional basketball career there.
UW is down to seven scholarship players, but even a couple of them have missed time due to injuries. Its two tallest players, senior post Jordan Naughton (left knee) and redshirt freshman forward Hunter Thompson (concussion), missed a combined 15 games.
Maldonado missed five games with back spasms.
Only two players have played in all 13 games this season – senior guard Justin James and junior point guard A.J. Banks.
Of the seven players, only James and Naughton have played in a college game for UW prior to this season. Naughton has played in only three games this season, and missed the final 24 games last season because of back problems.
When you do the math, UW opens conference play without 41 percent of its scoring and rebounding since the start of the season.
“For the most part this season we’ve had to adjust to something, whether it was somebody leaving the lineup or coming into the lineup,” third-year UW coach Allen Edwards said.
“You go into games with the bodies you have and think you have to do something a certain way, but then find out you don’t. It is an adjustment for the players and the coaches.”
An example is how UW has played defense. Edwards played almost all zone early without Naughton and Thompson – both 6-foot-10. As injuries and other circumstances mounted, Edwards stuck with the zone – for the most part – to avoid foul trouble.
But in recent games, UW has mixed in more man-to-man defense and it has worked despite not showing up in the win column. For instance, the Cowboys trailed by as much as 33 points to East Tennessee State. Seven second-half 3-pointers by Thompson helped, but so did the switch to man-to-man defense as UW cut the lead to 11 points and had the ball with 7 minutes, 36 seconds remaining. UW lost by 23, but showed it can mix up defenses and still be effective.
For the players, they don’t seem to be caught up on who is on the court and who isn’t. But they do think the first-half struggles start on defense.
“The reason why our second halves are much better is our intensity on the defensive end,” said James, who leads UW with 22.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 37.8 minutes per game.
“When we have that energy, we’re guarding and crashing the boards and trying to get every loose ball. When we’re doing that it makes everything easier. We have to start coming out with that defensive mindset at the beginning and play has hard s we can.
“That starts with me.”
Another example of adjustments is on offense.
In a perfect world, Edwards wants to push the tempo. Now, he wants to slow it down. The debut of that offense was in last Saturday’s 65-63 victory over NCAA Division II Dixie State.
The 65 points are the second-fewest this season, but the 63 points allowed are a season low. UW also attempted a season-low 43 shots. It had averaged 55.9, and 58 since Edwards became the head coach.
Edwards’ hope is the slower offense also will help UW be more intense and hard-nosed on defense.
It worked against a Division II foe, how it will work in the Mountain West remains to be seen.
“We have to go out there early with a focused mindset, and not give up easy plays offensively and defensively,” Banks said. “When we’re at our best is when we’re locking down on defense. Early on our focus has to be with high intensity.”
When asked why that is such a struggle in the first halves of games, Banks didn’t have an answer, but said: “We’re not making excuses, we just have to come out ready to play.”
Edwards expected this season to be one of adjustments with a lot of new faces, and even familiar ones with different roles. But he didn’t expect this.
Still, there is no one feeling sorry for UW, and Edwards said the attitude of the team and staff through all of this has been good.
Mistakes will be made moving forward, but that’s exactly what UW has to do – move forward.
“The biggest thing is we have to look for a lot of positives to encourage guys,” Edwards said. “There will be some things that get lost in translation, and that’s part of the growth aspect of it.
“My thing to the players is just play hard, and we’ll figure it out from there.”
About Boise State
The Broncos are 5-8, but four of their losses were by three points or less.
Junior forward RJ Williams, who plays more like a guard, leads Boise State with 14.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Williams, a transfer from East Los Angeles Community College, is one of seven new players on the roster. Edwards described Williams as a “workhorse.”
Junior guard Justinian Jessup, who is from Longmont, Colorado, averages 12.6 points per game, has made 33 3-pointers and shoots 40 percent from behind the arc.
“If he gets going from 3-point range, he can take over a game,” Edwards said.
Junior guard Alex Hobbs, the MW sixth man of the year last season, averages 8.4 points per game, and 6-11 senior forward Zach Haney averages 9.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per contest.
“We have to take care of the basketball, stop (Boise State) from getting into transition, rebound the basketball and force them to play in the halfcourt,” Edwards said.
UW is 8-11 in MW openers, and has won its last two. … The Cowboys have lost five of their past six games against the Broncos, but lead the overall series 14-13 and are 9-5 in Laramie. … James needs eight baskets to move into the top 10 in school history. He enters the game with 554. … James leads the nation in free-throw attempts (129) and is second in free throws made (97). … UW is 91-59 (.608) in MW games at home.
Robert Gagliardi is the WyoSports senior editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @rpgagliardi.