‘We’re way ahead of where we were at last year’
LARAMIE -- At this time last year, Wyoming featured a brand new head coach, a host of rookies and just a handful of healthy bodies as the Cowboys opened the most bizarre basketball season in program history.
With COVID-19 running rampant throughout the country, a normal practice schedule was anything but. Playing 5-on-5 wasn't an option. Contact tracing and injuries all but squashed that idea. All those youngsters -- six freshmen in total -- would be forced to learn on the fly.
Jeff Linder's favorite motivator and teaching tool -- the bench -- wasn't available, either. He had no one else to throw in the fire.
So when Detroit Mercy pays a visit to the Arena-Auditorium Wednesday night for the season opener, Linder said, unlike last November, his hopes are to simply see what he has on this roster in a real game experience.
"it's just going to be fun to now kind of see where we stand," he said. "I mean, you know, each game is a learning experience. Hopefully you can learn by winning. It's never fun learning by losing."
Wyoming received a season-long education throughout the 2020-21 campaign.
There were the good moments -- a road win over Oregon State, which eventually made it all the way to the Elite 8 last March, a home sweep of Mountain West foe, Nevada, a road victory at Fresno State and a blowout of San Jose State in the opening round of the league tournament before taking eventual champion, San Diego State, down to the wire.
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There were also the rough patches -- home sweeps at the hands of Border War rival Colorado State and against Boise State, back-to-back road losses versus the Aztecs and a lopsided setback in Logan against Neemais Queta and the Aggies.
We witnessed the emergence of guard Xavier DuSell and big man Graham Ike. Marcus Williams, who transferred to Texas A&M in the offseason, also wowed the limited crowds with his high-flying dunks and no-look passes on his way to being named the Mountain west Freshman of the Year.
The "old guys" like Hunter Maldonado and Kenny Foster continued to bring their lunch pail to the court day in and day out. Drake Jeffries and Hunter Thompson were dangerous from beyond the arc. That win in Corvallis doesn't happen without a 15-point outing from forward Jeremiah Oden.
"Compared to last year at this time, I mean we're way ahead of where we were at last year, " he said. "I mean, just from a program standpoint -- offensively, defensively, depth. I mean, I think that's the biggest thing. Now, during the game when I'm looking down and I'm like, 'well, I need to sub that guy out for making a mistake' and you look down and there's no one to sub them out. Luckily now, we can hold guys accountable with the bench, which is ultimately the biggest way to hold guys accountable to doing things that you want them to do. I'm excited for that."
Linder said the Cowboys played in two "secret" scrimmages this fall against Division-I teams. That was a trip to Salt Lake City to take on the Utes and a home matchup with his former program, Northern Colorado, per sources.
That experience -- against other squads with actual officials on the court -- can only be beneficial with the Titans rolling into town for a 7 p.m. tipoff, Linder said.
"That was good for us to really kind of see where we're at against good Division-I teams," Linder said. "You know, I think that based off of that we'll be in a good place come Wednesday night. But it's also that first game so you just never know."
Linder said the Cowboys will enter the season relatively healthy aside from a high ankle sprain that is still hampering Foster. There is no timetable for the sophomore's return to the lineup.
Detroit Mercy was picked to finish fifth in the Horizon League preseason poll. The Titans also feature one of the best shooters in the country in guard Antoine Davis, who was the nation's third leading scorer last season, averaging 24 points per game.
Davis is on the Lou Henson National Player of the Year watchlist. That award is presented annually to the best mid-major player in the country. The 6-foot-1 senior from Birmingham, Alabama, was also named the preseason Player of the Year in the Horizon League. He was an honorable mention All-American last season after finishing third in the country in 3-point field goals made per outing. That's the third time in his college career he has been ranked in the Top 10 nationally in that category.
He was also among the nation's best in:
* Free-throw percentage - 91.7% - 4th in the nation
* Total 3-pointers - 83 - 12th
* Total points - 527 - 22nd
* Field goals - 178 - 23rd
* Assists per game - 4.8 - 59th
* 3-point field-goal percentage - 37.2% - 64th
* Total assists - 105 - 92nd
Davis netted double figures in all 22 outings a year ago. That's nothing new. In fact, Davis has never not hit double digits in a game -- 82 of them. The NCAA record is 115. Davis could reach that number if the Titans make it to the second round of the Horizon League Tournament this fall.
Linder is well aware what Davis brings to the party. He also thinks this is a good early matchup for his defense.
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"Antoine Davis, it goes without saying, he's the second leading returning scorer in the country and coach's son," Linder said. "He can score in a variety of ways ... He can just single handedly go get 40 in a game. And that's with you guarding him well, too. He's a tough shot maker and he also has the ability to put it on the bounce and make plays for his teammates."
Detroit Mercy finished last season 12-10 overall.
Something else that will be new for Linder and the Cowboys this season will be fans in the stands. Last year, that number was capped at 2,500 per game. Now, it's wide open -- and Linder hopes to see you there.
"Hopefully we'll have a good crowd and guys will get their feet wet and take what the big game brings," he said. "Because, as I said, we don't know exactly what we're going to see -- we maybe have an idea of what we're going to see -- but at the same time we were pretty flexible and adjust on the fly and just figure out a way to win the game."
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