Pokes offense will once again run through Maldonado
LARAMIE -- Jeff Linder wants the ball in Hunter Maldonado's hands as much as possible.
It's not hard to see why, either.
The redshirt junior led the Cowboys with 4.6 assists per game last season. He was also the team's top rebounder, pulling down nearly seven boards per outing. Maldonado's 12.5 points a night was good enough for second.
When the ball is in Maldonado's possession, good things typically happen.
"We're going to ask for him to have the ball in his hands a lot more," said Linder, who is entering his second year at the helm of the Wyoming basketball program. "He'll play the point some -- in a lot of ways, he played the point last year -- just the way we ran the offense through him.
"... He'll either be at the point or will be the point forward, but the ball will be in his hands a bunch."
None of this is new to Maldonado.
He's been the focal point of the Cowboys' offense since the 2019-20 season, a year the program bottomed out at 9-24 despite Maldonado netting nearly 16 points per night.
Allen Edwards was fired at season's end, leaving Maldonado with a decision to make -- would he stay or would he attempt to win some place else?
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After the ink dried on Linder's contract that March, he drove straight south down Interstate-25 to Colorado Springs to re-recruit the Cowboys' unquestioned leader. He bought what his new coach was selling.
That pitch included making Maldonado the ultimate utility player.
He played the point. He put his back to the rim and battled with some of the big boys of the Mountain West. Whatever he did, it typically worked. His teammates benefitted, too.
"He's got great vision," Linder said. "He's got the ability to get in the paint, you know, whether that's off the ball screen or off of the dribble downs. To have a guy like him or a guy like Graham Ike you can get the ball inside to and put pressure on the defense below that free-throw line, I mean not only does it create opportunities for them to score, but it also creates a lot of opportunities for us."
Maldonado brings plenty of talent to the floor, but he is also the "old man" on the roster.
He arrived in Laramie back in 2017. That year the Cowboys finished 20-13 and Maldonado established himself as an up-and-comer alongside Justin James, Hayden Dalton and Alan Herndon. An injury plagued 2018-19 campaign earned him a medical redshirt. The following year, he was the sixth-leading scorer in the conference.
Wyoming doesn't have one senior on its current roster.
No worries. Maldonado also thrives in the role of mentor.
"In terms of the maturity that he brings to the to the program, he's a guy that the younger guys can look up to," Linder said. "It's not just on the court, but just what he does off the court, as well."
Maldonado, who became the 39th player in school history to net 1,000 career points last season, scored in double figures in the Cowboys final six games of last season. He did that 13 other times, too, as he helped lead Wyoming to the second round of the Mountain West Tournament last March.
A steady presence in the lineup, Linder is looking for Maldonado to open up defenses for the 6-foot-11 Ike and, guard Xavier DuSell, who drilled a team-high 57 3-pointers during his freshman campaign, and Kenny Foster, who can play on the perimeter but isn't afraid to mix it up in the paint himself.
The Cowboys will also attempt to replace former point guard Marcus Williams, who led the team in scoring last season, averaging nearly 15 points a night. Williams, who transferred to Texas A&M last spring, was the Mountain West Freshman of the Year.
Can that guy be Maldonado?
Linder said it will be by committee, but make no mistake, this offense will once again go through No. 24.
"We've been working on that a bunch here over the course of the summer and fall, really attacking inside," Linder said. "Also knowing, too, that (Maldonado and Ike) are good enough to where they're going to warrant double teams. So we're just mixing in different coverages, just to get them to use to seeing some different things that are going to come their way."
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