LAS VEGAS -- Graham Ike said he has a different mindset this March.

Sure, you can give some of that credit to Utah State's Neemias Queta, who made light work of Wyoming's true freshman last week in Logan. Queta put Ike on skates and made him look very much like he was playing in just his ninth career game. Ike scored just two points. It wasn't pretty.

That was a turning point, not the turning point.

Ike didn't know if he would even play a single minute during his first college season. A torn ACL last November in high school sidelined the 18-year-old through the Cowboys first 13 games. Week in and week out, first-year head coach Jeff Linder was asked when the 6-foot-9 forward would be ready to go.

We wanted to watch him play, but more importantly, most nights, Wyoming was getting worked in the paint.

Surely Ike at 75% was better than the alternative, right?

On Jan. 22, the Colorado product made his Wyoming debut. He didn't get on the scoreboard that night, but he did snag three rebounds in nine minutes before fouling out.

Those minutes were arguably the most important in his career.

"I wasn't even expecting to play this year," he said. "So, just just to be on the floor is amazing and it's a blessing. So that's just really what I'm grateful for is to be able to play."

Fast forward 47 days.

Ike is now the proud owner of the Mountain West Tournament scoring record for a freshman after sinking a game-high 32 points in a dominating 111-80 opening-round victory over San Jose State.

Utah's then-rookie Luke Nevill once scored 29 in Sin City.

As a senior, Nevill was named the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.

Foreshadowing?

Ike went 12-of-14 from the floor. He used an effective turnaround jumper, jump hook and a pair of monster dunks to get on the board. He was also 8-for-10 from the charity stripe. No matter who the Spartans deployed to guard No. 33, it failed -- badly.

Often overlooked, Ike was just as good on the defensive end of the floor.

He helped hold Michael Ofoegbu to just five points.

Ralph Agee, who was ejected in the second half for tapping Ike in the groin with his foot, netted 10.

Nate Lacewell finished with eight.

Wyoming outscored the Spartans 52-32 in the paint. The Pokes won the rebounding battle, 37-34. Ike finished with eight of those and blocked two shots.

Did that dominance surprise Linder? Not one bit.

"It's the guy that I recruited relentlessly for two years," Linder said from the podium in Las Vegas postgame. "As you know, as a junior, as a sophomore, junior and senior, and him being in my backyard back in Denver, having known his high school coach really well, had played against his high school coach in college and in high school, I knew exactly who he was.

"I mean, even as good as he is as a basketball player, it was just his makeup and his mentality... He was a guy that I just knew had great feel for the game, and that's always what we look for."

Linder said he watched Ike hammer opponents -- "higher-ranked" players -- during the summer of his junior year. Linder called them "fake social media guys" and said they are a "dime a dozen."

Not Ike. Linder saw how special he could be.

In the last four halves of basketball, Ike has scored 49 points on 20-of-24 shooting from the floor.

"You can't put a price on what's inside him -- in his heart," he said of Ike. "I mean, as smart as a player as he is, his heart and his pride (are right there). He got his butt kicked by Queta. He came back the next day and said, 'coach, I got my butt kicked. You know what? It's not going to happen again.'

"Sometimes it's a good thing. And since that time, UNLV and this game, he's kind of been a man on a mission."

Wyoming 111, San Jose State 80

 

 

Hunter Maldonado netted 17 points in the Cowboys 111-80 win over San Jose State Wednesday in Las Vegas./ Mountain West/NCAA Photos

Honorable mention?

After that 40-minute offensive clinic this afternoon inside the Thomas and Mack Center, maybe, just maybe, someone out there is rethinking that Honorable Mention nod bestowed upon UW junior Hunter Maldonado earlier this week by the league's coaches.

Not sure how SJSU head coach Jean Prioleau voted, but he got a front-row seat to the engine of this Cowboys' team today in Las Vegas.

Is Ike the headliner after this one? You bet.

But Maldonado isn't far off.

Wyoming's position-less leader netted 17 points against the Spartans. The way he finishes around the rim and draws in defenses is impressive enough, but tack on nine rebounds and six assists to this work day.

Pokes fans aren't shocked by those numbers. Neither are his teammates or coaches.

It's no secret, Maldonado is "the glue."

"He's the guy that kind of holds everything together," Linder said. "He's so versatile with his ability to play inside out and his ability to kind of be that old-school kind of point- forward. We do a lot of different things to where he's initiating the offense from a lot of different points."

 

Ike dished out an assist of his own to Maldonado from the postgame podium.

"It makes my job extremely easy, because then they move off the ball well. So if I don't have anything in the post, I throw it out to them and they can create for themselves and others," Ike said about Maldonado, along with Xavier DuSell, Drake Jeffries and Marcus Williams, who finished with a team-best 10 assists. "It's just amazing."

As valuable as Maldonado is on offense, he is often matched up with the opponent's best interior player. That guy is typically much bigger and stronger. Most nights, it doesn't matter.

That, in part, is why Linder's first mission after signing with UW last March was to make sure Maldonado wasn't going anywhere.

 

A new look

"Leading up to this game, on Monday and Tuesday, we had a great approach and it didn't feel like (they were) freshmen anymore," Linder said. "It felt like a team of upperclassmen that were talking and saying the right things. They had the right energy and I think you saw that tonight with with the way we played."

Think about that quote for a minute.

This is the 14th-youngest team in college basketball. The starting lineup most nights features three true freshmen in Williams, DuSell and Ike. There isn't a single senior on this roster.

From the sounds of this, Wyoming is turning into a player-led team.

How about another foreign statement this season from the coach:

"I felt like our depth -- which, as of now, we have our full team -- which we didn't have until the UNLV game (made a difference)," Linder said. "Now, we have multiple guys coming off the bench and that doesn't allow certain guys to play tired. I think that ultimately helps us on the defensive end over the course of 40 minutes."

Depth? What's that?

This team has practiced with less than eight guys for a huge chunk of this season. Now, Eoin Nelson played today in his first game of 2021 and Kenny Foster is getting back into a rhythm after missing six games with a knee injury.

From the sounds of this, Wyoming is fully healthy at the right time.

Linder will be the first to admit it: San Diego State embarrassed the Cowboys in back-to-back meetings in late January.

That's who the Pokes will face tomorrow at 1 p.m. MST in the quarterfinals.

The Aztecs are ranked 19th in the nation per the Associated Press. They have won 11 straight and feature the league's Player of the Year in Matt Mitchell. SDSU's head coach Brian Dutcher is once again the Coach of the Year.

Linder mentioned the Cowboys' effort the last time these two teams faced off. Ike reiterated it. It wasn't good enough. It likely won't take a record-setting offensive outburst from the Cowboys again, but the defense has to be better than it was today.

The task at hand is a tall one, but it sounds like if there's a good time to face the Aztecs, it's now.

"We look forward to the opportunity and the challenge," Linder said. "It's really a benchmark to see where we are really at as a program."

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