From Hunter to Hunted, the Target on Wyoming’s Back Growing
LARAMIE -- "Basketball season can't get here soon enough"
That is the go-to tweet more times than not the very second the Wyoming football team makes a mistake let alone loses a game.
You've seen them, I've seen them, members of the Cowboy basketball team have, too.
It's no secret anticipation for the upcoming season is at an all-time high. So are expectations. That happens when you return a majority of the offensive firepower from a group that went 25-9 overall and made the school's 16th trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"I mean, it is exciting, knowing that we have a lot of the fans in the state that want basketball season to be here," junior guard Brendan Wenzel said at the team's annual media day Wednesday in Laramie. "It's like they're just excited -- or more -- as we are for the season to start. I think it's huge, knowing that we already have a fan base waiting for our season to be here. I think it's awesome."
What about the pressure that comes with it?
The 6-foot-7, 204-pound San Antonio native shrugged and said it simply comes with the territory.
"I guess you could say that, but at the same time, there's always going to be outside noise," he continued. "I think something special about this team is we don't worry about the noise, we worry about what we have to do every day to be better and be the best version of ourselves for this team."
Wyoming point guard, Noah Reynolds, who saw the floor in 23 games last season, said there's a good reason for the enthusiasm.
"They should be excited," he said of the fan base. "You've got guys in here working out two, three times a day. We understand how important it is. We understand how excited people are. You know, the sacrifices that each individual guy has made in order to maximize his team's potential is what's so special.
"I think what's going to carry this season out further than what people expect is there are so many guys in this program that are willing to sacrifice and do anything they can to be the best team in this conference."
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Wyoming assistant Sundance Wicks said this program is embracing being the bull's-eye on its collective back. While it's easy to sneak up on teams in the standings and lie in the weeds, he said, being the hunted takes a new mindset.
"It's a mentality alignment, right? It's a different adjustment," the Gillette native added. "When you're the hunted, I think the biggest thing is you have to learn to distort your competitive reality, otherwise you're going to fall victim. That's probably the one of the biggest gifts that (UW head coach) Jeff (Linder) has is that he is the master of distorting competitive reality, like making practice competitive, continuing to get guys on edge, keep guys on edge.
"... I think that's the cool part about being hunted is it's a different mental task."
The league's media last October picked Wyoming to finish tied for eight place in the Mountain West Conference. After an 8-0 start, which included true road wins over Washington, Grand Canyon and Cal-State Fullerton, that narrative began to change.
The one-two punch of newly appointed point man Hunter Maldonado and the down-low dominance of Graham Ike was no longer a secret. They became the nation's top-scoring duo during the season. Still, the Cowboys jumped out to a 4-0 mark in conference play, highlighted by a pair of road victories at Utah State and Nevada.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still wreaking havoc, four postponed games at the beginning of the season were sent right to the back of the schedule. The Pokes played 11 games in a 30-day span, five in 10 nights to close out the regular slate.
Wyoming finished fourth in the standings, a game behind San Diego State and Colorado State, two from eventual regular-season champion, Boise State.
After a 59-56 victory over UNLV in the opening round of the league tournament, the Cowboys punched their ticket to March Madness, becoming one of the last four selections to the 68-team field.
Wyoming would fall to Indiana 66-58 in Dayton. It was a somber scene in western Ohio postgame, but one that came with a major caveat -- this young team arrived way ahead of schedule.
"I think we can really build on, you know, just the experience of being there," Linder said. "You can't put a price on that."
Wyoming's third-year head coach said his team started to wear down during the stretch run. The amount of games, the high usage rates of his two stars and the magnitude of the moment caught up.
That just part of the reason Linder and Co. hit the NCAA Transfer Portal this offseason, luring in USC regulars, Max Agbonkpolo and Ethan Anderson, and swaying their AAU teammate and UCLA guard, Jake Kyman, to join them in Laramie.
That talented depth has added to the hysteria surrounding this program. So has the return of Maldonado, who tested the NBA waters this offseason.
Maldonado, who averaged 18.5 points per game and became the school's all-time assists leader last year, has been on campus since 2017. He's seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly in Laramie. He was here when there were hundreds in attendance inside the Arena-Auditorium. And that wasn't just the pandemic-riddled season, either.
With one final run on the horizon, he said he feels the passion surrounding this team and the predicted outcome.
"We do love it," he said of the pressure and expectations. "Obviously, it just shows how much work we've put in ... I think a lot of things had to occur for us to get to this point, but now that we're here, I think we know we're the hunted. Everyone's going to come out and give us their best shot, especially with us being Top-35 in a lot of people's (preseason) rankings. But, I think the way we go out each practice prepares us for that best shot and gives us the best opportunity to win."