3 Quick takes: Multiple scoring threats a breath of fresh air in Laramie
LARAMIE -- I want you to imagine this scenario for a second.
It's terrifying, but stick with me.
It's 2019 and Hunter Maldonado doesn't have a single point until there is just 4:42 remaining on the clock in the first half.
How bad are the Cowboys losing?
Hint: Really bad.
Maldonado led the Pokes in nearly every major category last season. He scored in double digits in Wyoming's first 19 games. He was the team leader in minutes (28.9), rebounds (4.2) and assists (2.7).
If he didn't carry the Pokes on his injured back most of the year, no one would. Imagine how much worse it would've been?
Well, in Saturday's opener the scenario above did indeed happen. Maldonado didn't sink his first bucket until he toed the line for a free throw late in the first.
Only Wyoming wasn't losing.
In fact, they were up 49-19 on visiting Mississippi Valley State.
My how the times have changed, huh?
"We have a lot of growing still to do," Wyoming head coach Jeff Linder said after the Cowboys rolled to a 97-61 victory in his debut. "We are far, far away from being any good. We're at least taking steps in the right direction."
That, of course, is coach speak.
And consider this -- the Cowboys have not practiced 5-on-5 for more than a month. COVID-19 has put a stop to that. Most days practices consist of set plays and 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 situations.
Not to mention Kenny Foster and Kwane Marble, two of the top returners for the Pokes, were unable to go in this one because of virus protocols.
If you ask any Wyoming fan, Saturday was about as good as it's been around here in a couple years -- at least.
For one, this is no longer a one-man band in Laramie. Maldonado has some friends who are more than happy to help carry the scoring load.
The assists and rebounding, too.
One is true freshman point guard Marcus Williams.
The Texas product slashed his way through Mississippi Valley State's defense all afternoon. He scored at the rim. He scored from deep. When he wasn't putting the ball in the hole, he was dishing it out.
The creative way. You know, through traffic, no-look stuff.
Want visual proof?
Williams finished with 20 points and eight assists.
Linder said Williams could be one of the best playmakers in the league. He might just be on to something.
"He's not scared of the moment," Linder said. "You see in glimpses his ability to see the floor. He has a chance to be a really, really good player."
Drake Jeffries, the junior college transfer, was on the receiving end of a couple of those beautiful passes.
Jeffries led the team with 16 points at the half and finished with 19. He hit more than 80 three-pointers last year at Indian Hills in Iowa. Saturday, he had five in the first 20 minutes of play. Jeffries went 6-for-15 from deep. He also snagged eight boards.
Not too shabby for a Division-I debut.
"I wasn't too nervous," he said. "I was super excited to put Wyoming on my chest and play for the state. It's one of the best feelings in my life... It's just a blessing."
Eight of the Cowboys' nine players in uniform scored in the first half.
Hunter Thompson led all scorers with 25 points on the night. He went 5-of-7 from three and was 9-of-13 from the field. Maldonado netted 10. He also pulled down seven rebounds and added eight assists.
We can go over stats all day, but the point here is this team shares the ball, plays smart and makes shots. Yes, it was against a winless team playing its third road game in five nights, but this Cowboy squad is new from the coaching staff to eight of 12 players on the roster.
"I was actually surprised how we came out and started the game," Linder said of the Cowboys' 24-5 run. "We kind of needed that. Marcus Williams needed that. Jeremiah Oden needed that. All the freshmen did... They were putting on the uniform for the first time and there were people in stands."
If this is what fans can expect, buckle your seatbelt. Good days could be here again.
One confident Cowboy
Hunter Thompson joked with the media earlier in the week that he thought his new coach was "blowing smoke" when he told him over the phone during their first conversation he could be the biggest mismatch in the Mountain West Conference this season.
"But once I got to talk with him in-person, he laid out the plan of how he wants me to play," Thompson added. "He gave me a lot of confidence. That's something you always want in a coach is for them to really believe in you like he does.
"He challenges me daily to fulfill that role."
Linder said he expected Thompson to take open shots against MVSU Saturday. Like, every one of them. He has the ultimate green light.
It showed in this one.
Thompson shot the ball 13 times, seven of which were from deep.
"It's really helped out a lot. Not only the head coach, but all assistants and my teammates hold me accountable to be a shooter and take open threes," Thompson said postgame. "I can be a little selfish when it comes to shooting. If it's the right shot."
Linder put it as simple as he could after this one: "Thompson is who I want Thompson to be."
His best attribution, according to Linder, didn't show up on Saturday's scoresheet.
"He causes a lot of problems," Linder said. "What you don't see is when he starts making some of those shots is how his man gets pulled up. They don't know whether to switch, not to switch. That's when you'll see Williams, Xavier DuSell and Maldo getting to the rim downhill."
Thompson was certainly a nightmare for the Delta Devils, but Linder knows the San Diego States of the world will have a plan against the big man.
"Better teams are going to have a plan," Linder said. "We will be ready for that."
Keeping it real
Mississippi Valley State is not a good basketball team right now.
This wasn't a slight toward the 0-3 Delta Devils, but Linder said at times Saturday it looked like a "glorified scrimmage."
They have one returning starter, Caleb Hunter, and were just waxed in the first two games of the season.
MVSU was hammered 142-62 in the season opener at Arkansas. Two nights later, defending Conference USA champs, North Texas, rolled to a 116-62 victory in Denton.
MVSU gave up a combined 41 three-pointers.
Saturday, that trend continued. Wyoming sank 13 from beyond the arc.
What does all that mean?
This probably isn't a true depiction of what we will see on a nightly basis around here. In fact, it could all change Monday night when Texas Southern pays a visit to the Arena-Auditorium.
The Tigers, who won 16 games last season, gave Washington State all it could handle in a 56-52 loss Wednesday night in Pullman. Unlike MVSU, Texas Southern has size, including a pair of 6-foot, 9-inch post players.
Linder called the Tigers a more "traditional" team and said it will be a chance for Eoin Nelson and Oden to bang underneath the rim.
"It's hard trying to post up small guys," Linder said. "It's tough to get their feet wet."
Nelson finished with nine points Saturday and Oden added five, including a monster one-handed jam late in regulation.
Donalson Fanord is the lone big man who saw any minutes for the Devils in Laramie. He didn't get on the stat sheet.
Texas Southern will face Oklahoma State later today in Stillwater.