Gear up for gameday: UNLV
LARAMIE -- If we have learned one thing this year it's to never count our chickens before the eggs have had a chance to hatch, but we are just hours away from Wyoming's regular season finale at home against UNLV tonight at 9 p.m. inside the Arena-Auditorium.
Thought this would be a good spot to reflect a bit.
There was a chance this season wouldn't even happen thanks to the pandemic that is about to turn one later this month.
How weird has this season been? I have talked to first-year head coach Jeff Linder probably 50 times. I've never met him face to face. I've never shook his hand.
Linder was hired last St. Patrick's Day. He was able to scoot down to Colorado as the ink was drying on his contract to lure Hunter Maldonado, Kwane Marble and Kenny Foster back to Laramie. He made a call to Hunter Thompson and got him to buy in, too.
Then, over Zoom calls, Linder landed the top-ranked recruiting class in the Mountain West Conference. We've seen those guys grow before our very eyes over the initial 22 games this season.
Here are a few things that come to mind when reflecting on this 2020-21 campaign:
* Marcus Williams could be one of the best players in team history when it's all said and done. That's not just my opinion, Jason Straight, one of the program's top point guards in history, agrees whole-heartedly. Williams is one of the top-scoring freshmen in the nation, averaging 15.4 points per game. It hasn't always come easy for the kid from Texas, but some nights, he sure makes it look that way. It's not just the buckets that have made this kid special. His vision, court-awareness and leadership are beyond his years.
* Graham Ike, according to Linder, could be one of the best big big men he ever has the opportunity to coach. He's shown flashes as he suits up for his 10th collegiate game tonight. The 6-foot-9 forward from Colorado should only get better with experience and strength. Same can be said for Jeremiah Oden, Xavier DuSell and a host of other youngsters.
* Speaking of DuSell, he sure looks like another steal for Linder, huh? The guard with the big hair made the decision mid-season that he wasn't OK simply being a role player and netting a couple of buckets a night, he wanted to be a game-changer. He has been just that, scoring in double figures in nine of his last 13 outings. The Arizona product has been lethal from deep and can also knife through the lane and get to the rim. He appears to be the real deal.
* Maldonado is still ol' reliable, isn't he? The success of this team still very much rests on his shoulders, but that doesn't mean he has to be the leading scorer every night. The junior, and unquestioned leader of this team, has drawn some tough assignments this season. He's been a fixture in the paint and often has the task of guarding the opponents' best player. Maldonado is still that guy who will dive for loose balls, go into the dirty areas and make the guys around him better. Most important, he has stayed healthy. Remember this time a year ago? Wyoming was making an unexpected run in the MW Tournament and Maldonado was in obvious discomfort. These COVID-19 layoffs aren't helpful, but on the bright side, it's given a much-needed breather for a guy who has suffered a couple of major injuries in his career.
* We hear the same excuses on a weekly basis: This team is young. This team can't even practice 5-on-5 because of health and COVID-19 protocols. This team needs to put a full 40 minutes together. All of the above is true. Linder offered this quote up early in the season: "Did anyone really expect us to go 27-0?" The simple answer is no. With growth comes some frustrating moments, but every time this team gets the opportunity to play, that's not just a good thing -- it's imperative -- no matter the final score.
There are other issues that are plaguing this team, but here's that word again, "youth" is the main culprit. There's no getting around it. These guys need some birthdays.
Imagine complaining about a double-digit win season after the depths this program found itself in over the previous two seasons before this one.
There's a long way to go, no question about it, but this squad will be in the mix before you know it.
You know what else is cool for this team? It's senior night.
No one is celebrating that tonight.
Mountain West Conference standings
1 San Diego State (20-4, 14-3-MW Champions)
2 Colorado State (17-5, 14-4)
3 Utah State (17-7, 14-4)
4 Boise State (18-7, 14-6)
5 Nevada (15-9, 10-7)
6 Fresno State (11-10, 9-10)
7 UNLV (11-13, 8-9)
8 Wyoming (12-10, 6-9)
9 San Jose State (5-15, 3-13)
10 Air Force (5-19, 3-17)
11 New Mexico (6-15, 2-15)
Here is all you need to know about tonight's tilt in Laramie:
WHO: Wyoming (12-9, 6-8) at UNLV (11-13, 8-9)
WHEN: Saturday, March 6 at 9:00 p.m. MST
WHERE: Arena-Auditorium, Laramie, Wyoming
TV: CBS Sports Net (Channel 221 on DirecTV, 158 on Dish Network, 594 on Verizon Fios)
RADIO: Cowboy Sports Network
STREAMING: CBS Sports Net
TICKETS: UW ticket office
BOX SCORE: Live stats
ROSTERS: Wyoming / UNLV
VEGAS ODDS: Wyoming -1, O/U 144
HISTORY: UNLV leads the all-time series 41-18 (The Rebels knocked off the Cowboys both times last season)
HEAD COACHES: Jeff Linder / TJ Otzelberger
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