‘Will the new guy even want you here?’
LARAMIE -- Hunter Maldonado admits that transferring from Wyoming crossed his mind.
How could it not?
The team was coming off a disappointing 9-24 season that included just two conference wins in the regular season. Most nights, it wasn't close. Others, Wyoming would do just enough to find a way to lose.
Despite Maldonado leading the Cowboys in nearly every statistical category, including 15.8 points per game to go along with nearly six rebounds, he was wearing down. As the losses mounted, so did the pain from a back injury that claimed his second season in Laramie.
To make matters worse, after a miracle three-game run through the Mountain West Tournament, Allen Edwards, the only coach Maldonado has ever known, was fired.
Maldonado made it clear who he wanted to be his coach this season with a tweet he fired off shortly after the Cowboys fell to Utah State in Las Vegas:
Teammate TJ Taylor was the first to leave the program. Privately, Maldonado knew others were following.
"As soon as coach got fired, transferring enters your head," Maldonado said Wednesday during a 10-minute phone conversation. "You don't know what will happen. Will the new guy even want you here?"
When Jeff Linder was named the new head coach in mid-March, he jumped in his car and headed south. He was on the recruiting trail. First stop, Maldonado's house in Colorado Springs.
Linder's first order of business was to keep Maldonado, Hunter Thompson, Kenny Foster, Kwane Marble and others who showed promise during the 2019-20 campaign.
Maldonado said a deciding factor was Linder simply listening to him.
His concerns. His hopes for the future and what type of player he can be. And most importantly, the family aspect of a team.
That resonated with Wyoming's sophomore leader.
"It was huge in the sense that he is showing us that he wants us," Maldonado said. "He showed us how to be loyal and to be about right things. It definitely set us off on the right foot.
"If he didn't do that, I don't know how it would've turned out. He showed up and talked to me and my parents, and that showed how far he was willing to go."
March 18, less than 24 hours after Linder accepted the gig, Maldonado fired off this series of tweets:
Even Edwards told his star to be open minded and give the new staff a chance.
"I was (Edwards') first recruit," he said. "We bonded pretty well and it sucked to see him go. People don't realize how much time and effort we put into building a relationship and all the things he taught me outside of basketball about attacking life."
In the end, Maldonado was also Linder's first recruit.
"I wanted to wait a little bit to make the decision," he said. "I love Wyoming people. They are genuine and we have a great fan base. It was a no-brainer with all the love I get. As soon as I got here, the first thing I wanted was to do great things for Wyoming. I'm happy to stay."
Before Linder walked out of Maldonado's living room and into an unknown world being taken over by the coronavirus, one thing was certain.
"As soon as our meeting was over, I told coach, I'll be around," Maldonado said. "I said, 'don't worry, I'm staying.'"
Maldonado is currently in Laramie undergoing a mandatory quarantine. He said basketball activities have been far and few between. He is focused on safety and making sure a basketball season is even in the cards.
That doesn't mean he hasn't paid attention to what his new coach and his staff have been up to. Linder and Co. have secured the top recruiting class in the Mountain West Conference. They also landed in the Top 50 nationally out of 350 Division-I teams.
Wyoming gained momentum last March in Sin City with upset victories over rival Colorado State and Nevada. Linder has only kept that rolling.
"It's definitely been huge," Maldonado said. "It's only going to help that these guys coming in are willing to work and get down and dirty. I'm excited to work with all of them, but we have done nothing at this level yet.
"We still need to prove ourselves."