Who’s ready for a new era of Pokes’ hoops?
LARAMIE -- The Jeff Linder era kicks off in Laramie Thursday with the Cowboys first official practice of the 2020 season.
A non-conference schedule still isn't in place. Linder said his team has had zero COVID-19 cases, but contact tracing has forced guys to miss two weeks of practice, which means somedays only nine players are on the court.
No, he doesn't know if fans will be allowed in the Arena-Auditorium.
Hey, it's 2020. Are we surprised?
What Linder does know is he has four returning players from last year's 9-24 squad, no seniors and a bunch of guys who are "hungry to prove people wrong."
Let's meet the 2020 Cowboys:
- Xavier DuSell, Guard, 6-4, 190, Fr.
- Kenny Foster, Guard, 6-5, 190, Soph.
- John Grigsby, Forward, 6-9, 215, Fr.
- Graham Ike, Forward, 6-9, 245, Fr.
- Drake Jeffries, Guard, 6-5, 185, Jr.
- Drew LaMont, Forward, 6-8, 225, Jr.
- Hunter Maldonado, Guard, 6-7, 200, Jr.
- Kwane Marble, Guard, 6-6, 195, Soph.
- Eoin Nelson, Forward, 6-10, 225, Soph.
- Jeremiah Oden, Forward, 6-8, 180, Fr.
- Hunter Thompson, Forward, 6-10, 235, Jr.
- Marcus Williams, Guard, 6-2, 180, Fr.
Since Linder's hiring March 17, Wyoming has landed a Top-50 national recruiting class. People who get paid to decide such things also say the Pokes' were No. 1 in the Mountain West in that category.
He did that all over Zoom meetings, aside from getting in one last face-to-face sale's pitch with Hunter Maldonado, Kenny Foster, Kwane Marble and Hunter Thompson before the coronavirus knocked earth of its axis.
In one of those cyber meetings with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Linder discussed a number of topics with the season officially set to begin sometime around Thanksgiving.
Linder said he voted for 20 league games. The conference slate will consist of 18 of those. He's eyeing a decision from the NCAA Wednesday that will decide whether or not 2020 will count toward a player's eligibility.
He's all for that.
When it comes to this team, and the thing's Linder said he can control, things are moving in the right direction. Without scrimmages or exhibition games, however, Linder is tempering his excitement.
"It will be a work in progress early," Linder said. "Hopefully we will get things going by conference play."
That part of the schedule is known, and the Cowboys will open Dec. 29 at Fresno State. They will head to The Pit next to take on New Mexico four days later.
Right now, Linder said this squad is working on conditioning and communicating.
He recollected a time when he was an assistant at Boise State and coming into Laramie to take on the likes of Larry Nance Jr. and Josh Adams.
"You better be really mentally tough to survive the last five minutes of a game," he said of playing inside the A-A. "... that's when the other team starts grabbing their shorts at the line and Riley Grabau knocks a couple down.
"That's the mindset we are trying to create."
Linder also addressed the issue of having zero seniors on the roster. Is it a good thing?
"It doesn't worry me," he said. "We are returning players with experience. The trick in college basketball is to be old. The older you are, that usually equates to more wins."
The four guys who are returning have had plenty of experience. Unfortunately for them, plenty of experience on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
However, there was the improbable run in March to cap off a forgettable regular season that saw the Pokes' pick up just two conference wins, which both came on the road.
The No. 11 seed Cowboys kicked off the Mountain West Tournament with an upset win over Border War rival Colorado State. They followed that up with a stunning win over Nevada. The Cinderella run came to a halt in the semifinals versus Utah State. Wyoming fought to the final horn.
Linder watched that tourney from his home in Greeley, knowing this would likely be the team he would inherit at season's end.
How does he get this team to win? Especially right away?
"It's a battle every day," he said. "And I think the one thing that all the players know is that we're not going to look the other way, and they're going to be held accountable every possession to the things we believe help you win games. It's not just necessarily putting the ball in the basket. There are a lot of things that go into it."
Linder said victories will come with repetition.
"They're going to be held accountable for four things every day," he continued. "And really, those have nothing to do with basketball but everything to do with basketball. That's character, their communication, their body language and their response.
"... as much as I coach offense, defense, I coach body language probably more than anything."
Maldonado averaged 15.8 points per game for the Cowboys last winter. He also led the team in rebounds (5.8), assists (4.0), steals (1.2) and blocks (0.5).
This year, the junior can't do it alone.
Linder said Maldonado was maybe at "60%" during the MW Tournament.
Enter Marble stage left.
The then-freshman scored 20 against CSU in the opener in Sin City. He followed that up with a 24-point showing against the Wolfpack. Marble went for 15 in the finale, but was named to the All-Tournament team.
Thompson, the big from Pine Bluffs, was also impressive in the final two contests in Vegas. Against Nevada, Thompson sank both of his three-pointers and was 3-of-5 from the field. He went 4-of-6 from beyond the arc against the Aggies and finished with 17 points.
Foster also had a nice outing against Utah State, netting 18 points and hitting four three-pointers.
Did the Pokes find their confidence inside the Thomas & Mack Center? It sure appears so. Will that carry over?
That remains to be seen.
One thing is apparent though.
"They are ready to really try and prove people wrong," Linder said. "They are tired of losing. They want to try to do some things differently in order to win games. They've really come out with the right approach."
Expectations are high, but Linder is a realist.
"... Everything is not going to be sunshine and cupcakes every single day or possession," he said. "You choose what your response is going to be."