COLUMN: Linder’s Pokes, as promised, closing the gap with SDSU
LARAMIE -- This young Wyoming team attended and graduated from the school of hard knocks last season.
Never was that more apparent than during the lone trip to Viejas Arena in late January.
First, there was a 30-point rout. Less than 48 hours later, the Cowboys once again took one on the chin, courtesy of a San Diego State squad that was on the verge of cracking the Top 25.
Imagine how much worse it could've been with fans in the stands?
Wyoming simply wasn't there yet.
"You know, you get beat by 30 and you don't feel like you'll ever win a game again," Jeff Linder said after a 98-71 loss to the Aztecs. "But with a young team, that's what's going to allow you to grow. That's what's going to allow you over time to get better. Because they now know when you go to practice and a coach gets on you about 'it's not good enough, the intensity isn't good enough defensively,' now they can get something to go back on.
"They can remember what it's like when you get your butt kicked by a team."
Wyoming's then-first-year head coach didn't forget.
In fact, Linder said he even thanked SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher for the clinic.
"He's like, 'what are you thanking me for?'" Linder said. "Because you just gave me 40 minutes of what I can show our guys for the next six-to-nine months of what winning looks like on the defensive end of the floor and just the habits that hopefully we will build over time, which we will."
The Cowboys and Aztecs would meet once more in 2021, this time during the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament.
A third blowout loss on tap? Wonderful. You had every reason to think it would happen, too.
Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel torched Wyoming to the tune of 65 points in those two regular-season meetings. Keshad Johnson and Lamont Butler added 45 more. That SDSU team thrived on the Cowboys empty possessions. There were 28 of them, to be exact.
UW shot just 37% from the field during their stay in sunny southern California. Every shot was contested. Going toe-to-toe with the Aztecs in Las Vegas wouldn't work.
Linder was the first to admit it.
The top-scoring team in the league was going to slow it down in Sin City. Slow it way down. The Cowboys methodical approach limited the 19th-ranked team in the nation to just 51 attempts from the field. Wyoming hit 41% of its shots, led by freshman guard Xavier DuSell, who finished with a game-high 21 points.
It wasn't enough.
Six late free throws -- and hitting shots at a 49% clip -- sealed a 69-66 victory for the Aztecs, who went on to knock off Nevada and Utah State to claim their sixth conference tournament championship in the Mountain West era.
We learned a few things that afternoon inside the Thomas & Mack Center:
* The kids were growing up before our very eyes
* The future was bright
* The word "peripety"
That last one means "sudden change." That's exactly what Linder and Co. did by implementing such a radically different game plan. It showed he had an egoless approach to his offense and ultimately would do whatever it took to win.
It even caught DuSell off guard.
"At first, I was a little just thrown off about it because nobody was expecting it really," he said. "Obviously, (SDSU) sure as heck didn't. We just stuck to it. We know we have one of the smartest coaches in the world. So whatever he says, we just stick to it, try to do it to the best of our ability and just try to execute the game plan."
Fast forward 354 days.
Tonight, these two teams will meet in Laramie, both with conference title aspirations.
Mitchell and Schakel are long gone, but the Aztecs simply reloaded as they're known to do. Now the offense flows through Matt Bradley, who averages nearly 17 points per game and sinks nearly 45% of his shots.
Oddly enough, he's the only player on the roster to average double figures.
No worries, SDSU still possesses the stingiest defense in the league, allowing less than 57 points per outing. That ranks No. 2 in the nation.
Another thing that hasn't changed is winning. The Aztecs are one of the hottest teams in the country, claiming victories in seven of their last eight games. A late foul call, coupled with a pair of missed free throws off the left hand of Bradley, cost them a win at Boise State six days ago.
Wyoming featured the 10th-best defense in the 11-team conference a year ago. Today, they sit fourth overall, allowing just 65.6 points per game.
This is a must-win situation for the Cowboys if they hope to stay just a game behind the Broncos in the loss column with three outings remaining in the regular season.
DuSell said last spring the program is building brick by brick. It would take a lot of work, and a commitment on the defensive end of the floor.
"One day you're going to look up and you're going to have a mansion," the freshman said.
Wyoming doesn't yet reside on snob hill, but they are shopping in the neighborhood and putting in offers. A win over SDSU this year will not just be a step in the right direction, it will prove the Cowboys are becoming one of the heavyweights in the Mountain West once again.
This is no fluke.
Linder tried to tell you.
"Wyoming basketball will be a force to be reckoned with," Linder said last March. "... It's a day-by-day process, but I like where we will be here in time."
Now is that time.