Allow me to look into my crystal ball for a moment. How does “University of Wyoming, 2023 Mountain West champions” sound?
Is it bold to have more faith than ever in what Jeff Linder is building in Laramie following a 20-point drubbing at the hands of Fresno State? Most likely. But life favors those who take chances, and I’m buying stock while it’s low. And don’t come running to me when the prices of shares soar in the next year or so.
I am all in on the Cowboys over the foreseeable future.
No, they probably aren’t going to be the class of the conference this season. Boise State and San Diego State look pretty tough at the top, though anything can happen come tournament time. Just ask UW, the worst team in the conference last season who made an unreal run to the MW tournament semifinals in 2020.
The product on the floor in Linder’s first season at the helm has been, for the most part, as good as one could hope for. The Cowboys were among the worst offensive teams in college basketball last season, averaging a meager 62.7 points per game, good for 338th in the nation. The 2020-21 Cowboys are a juggernaut comparatively, averaging nearly 20 points per game more (82), which puts them at 35th nationally.
Have the Pokes played what I would consider a powerhouse schedule? Not really. A road win at Oregon State was tremendous, but the Beavers are not the class of the Pac-12. More impressive than who UW has beaten, however, is the way the team has managed to do so.
Travel back a year, and there were a handful of games the Cowboys were actually competitive in and had chances to emerge victorious from but failed to do so. Tight losses to Utah Valley, Cal State Northridge, Boise State and Colorado State come to mind, games where a team that always seemed to be on the verge of breaking through came up just short of breaking glass ceilings.
UW has flipped the script this season. Aside from the devastating home loss to Texas Southern, a game the Cowboys led by 19 points at halftime, the team has been able to win close games that would have slipped through their fingers a year ago.
This is all well and good. The Cowboys are leaps and bounds better than they were; the 7-2 record tells that much of the story considering last year’s team won nine games total.
But there are a few other reasons I’m all in on UW, now and going forward. Allow me, if you will, to wax poetic about (maybe?) 2023 MW champion Wyoming.
1. Marcus Williams will win MW player of the year eventually
He’s only played nine games collegiately, but it’s easy to envision the Texas native becoming a superstar. The freshman guard leads UW in scoring at 17.6 points per game. More than that, however, is his presence on the court. He never gets too high or too low, despite how he might be performing individually. He is never afraid to put his head down and pull the trigger, even if he is 1 of 9 from the field.
Williams is already one of the 10 best players in the league, and he is still a teenager. How good is he going to be in, say, 2023, assuming he stays the course? He has every chance to be the next dynamic Cowboy, rubbing elbows with recent greats like Justin James, Larry Nance Jr. and Josh Adams. He can do a bit of everything and is among the most complete young players Linder said he has coached, high praise considering he helped mentor Damian Lillard when he was at Weber State. Williams is only going to get better.
2. Linder knows how to recruit his kind of players
Star rankings are great and everything, but it really doesn’t mean much if the players don’t fit the style of play a coach is hoping to achieve. When highly-touted players cross paths with a systemic match, you end up with early returns like what Linder has gotten out of his first recruiting class.
Linder’s first class, which was put together in the midst of a global pandemic, was the best in the MW, according to Rivals. Williams was one of the biggest hauls, but nearly every player has chipped in to this early season’s success.
Take junior college transfer Drake Jeffries, for instance. Jeffries was known as a sniper coming out of Indian Hills Community College, having shot a staggering 45% from 3-point range last season. What has he done since coming to Laramie? Not much, other than shoot a blistering 41.4% from deep. He was brought in to spread the floor, which Linder emphasizes in his high-movement offense. Jeffries has fit perfectly.
You can also take freshman forward Jeremiah Oden, the lanky 6-foot-8 Chicago product who has been extremely versatile in a season when the Cowboys have lacked available bodies. Against Fresno State, Oden had the unenviable task of helping defend Orlando Robinson, the 7-footer who ranks among the top bigs in the MW. Robinson had his way on a few occasions, but without Eoin Nelson in the lineup, someone had to at least try to take Robinson. Oden was up to the task.
There aren’t a ton of players who would be able to do what Oden attempted. His versatility as a scorer (6.2 points per game), rebounder (4.4 per game) and defender are what made him so tantalizing as a prospect. He has done everything expected and asked of him since joining the Cowboys.
Linder has also done a masterful job of fitting the four returners from last year’s team into his plans. Sophomore Kenny Foster has started to look like the Colorado player of the year he was coming out of high school, particularly as a shooter. Redshirt junior forward Hunter Thompson is spreading the floor like an ace, a 6-foot-10 unicorn with the shooting touch of a guard. Redshirt junior guard Hunter Maldonado is still doing a bit of everything, running the show, making all the right reads and setting the tone defensively. And sophomore Kwane Marble II is doing what he does best: driving to the basket amid the space created by guys like Jeffries, Foster and Thompson.
Every player for the Cowboys plays his part, and does so quite beautifully. With every player getting an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, imagine how good this core might be in two years. It could be truly scary.
3. Cultural foundations are being built
“Culture” gets thrown around a lot when talking about pretty much every sport. It’s an easy way to explain why a team looks different or better than it did before without really explaining it at all. It’s a term that makes us sportswriters look smart when we probably don’t know the real answer.
But there truly is something brewing at Arena-Auditorium under Linder and his staff. It’s evidenced by looking at the huddle of a close game.
When there was doubt toward the end of highly-contested matchups last season, there is a sense of calm in each and every timeout this time around. No fear of failing, no questioning whose turn it is to be the hero. There is supreme confidence in Linder’s process, knowing that he is going to put players in the right spots to have a fighting chance.
It’s not about being down 15 points, 10 points or three points late. It’s about winning each and every possession and knowing that, if the Cowboys do what’s asked of them, they have a good chance of ending up on the right side of the final box score. Winning possessions is what players talk about after nearly every single game.
There is a certain belief this team has that, if we are being honest, didn’t seem to be there last season. Did the Cowboys want to win every game last year? Of course. But wanting to and believing they can are very, very different things. When losses pile up, it’s hard to have enthusiasm day in and day out.
That issue has not happened yet for this season’s group, but there will inevitably be a losing streak somewhere during the season. For as talented as the Cowboys are, they remain extremely young. I’d put my money on it not leading to a lesser product, however, or a losing streak that goes into seven, eight or nine games like it did in 2019-20. UW will fight night in and night out until the final buzzer sounds.
And that’s what makes the future so darn tantalizing. The talent is there. The player fits are there. Most importantly, a winning culture of belief is being built. This team is already going to exceed its preseason expectations; if you ask me, there is zero chance UW finishes ninth as predicted by the media. There’s too much talent and fight for that to happen. Realistically, however, this isn’t the championship season.
Come 2022 or 2023, however, and you are going to see a Mountain West champion in Laramie. Mark it down in your calendars now.