Wyoming guard pushes through dark times, becomes key contributor
LARAMIE -- To say Jeff Linder and his staff were particularly hard on Brendan Wenzel when he arrived on campus would be a laughable understatement.
He even earned an unwanted nickname: "Weight-Watchers Wenzel."
You can probably guess how he landed that moniker. Physically -- and mentally -- the Utah transfer wasn't prepared for the rigors of a college basketball season when he landed in Laramie in 2020. Hunter Maldonado couldn't help but laugh when he recalled Wenzel's first few days in the gym.
"He was out of shape, for sure," he said. "He couldn't get up and down too many times in a row and always had to get a sub ... Coach was ripping him because, obviously, you can't play basketball if you can only go up and down once or twice."
Wenzel hasn't forgotten those tongue lashings. In fact, the junior smiled, shook his head and said he didn't want to talk about it. It's not a fun memory, but it's just a small part of his journey, which according to Linder, could land him in the starting lineup in the Cowboys highly-anticipated season opener Monday night in Laramie.
"Coming here, it was rough," the San Antonio, Texas product said. "My body wasn't where it was supposed to be. Mentally, I was still kind of off from Utah. But, you know, I'm glad I came here because the intensity that Linder and the whole coaching staff brings is what really made me better."
The staff in Salt Lake City did what it took to lure Wenzel. He said it was a different story when he arrived. He played in just two games in a Utes uniform before redshirting during the 2019-20 season. At mid-semester, he entered the NCAA Transfer Portal.
Linder said he told the former three-star recruit he would be the first player in the history of college basketball to hit the portal twice if he didn't recommit himself to the game.
"Credit to him, he had to hear a lot of hard truths," Wyoming's third-year head coach said. "For him, he could have taken it one of two ways. He could've felt sorry for himself and decided, hey, this is not for him. Or he could say, you know what, feel sorry for himself and look in the mirror and decide, 'hey, this is what I want to do -- I want to become the player that I know I can become and that these coaches are pushing me to be.'
"Thankfully, for him, he figured it out."
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After sitting out the 2020-21 campaign because of transfer rules, Wenzel appeared in all 34 games during last season's NCAA Tournament run. He started 14 of those. The 6-foot-7, 204-pound guard averaged 5.2 points and pulled down nearly three rebounds while averaging nearly 29 minutes per night.
Wenzel hit better than 40% of his shots from the field and reached double-figures six times, including a career-high 15-point outing in an 84-69 victory over San Jose State.
Arguably his best outing came when the Cowboys needed it the most. Sitting squarely on the March Madness bubble, Wenzel came off the bench to net 12 in a 59-56 win over UNLV in the opening round of the Mountain West Conference Tournament. He also skied for seven boards and hit all four of his free-throw attempts in the victory.
"I think it was a little confidence booster that I needed," said Wenzel, who also suffered a tailbone injury while going for an offensive rebound and avoiding landing on a teammate. "I think it was all about my mindset going into that game. I just knew what I had to do. I knew my role on the team and I went out there and did it."
UW assistant coach Sundance Wicks, the man who bestowed that clever label on Wenzel upon his arrival, said he doesn't "envy the undefeated or the unscarred" but appreciates people with a little bit of a different journey.
"I think when you go through some suck, you know, when it sucks sometimes and you make it out the other side, really what shines through is your character and your personality and you become a little bit more confident and secure in who you are," Wicks said. "Because until we're faced with adversity or put through the fire, we don't know who we are.
"And for Brendan to go through that and to be challenged at a high level from the staff and from everybody, to come out on the other side, he became 'Winning-Play Wenzel.' Last year, he was a huge boost for us, but that confidence spurred him."
Linder said last season Wenzel was the 10th player on an 11-man bench. Not anymore.
"Now, I mean, he's a guy that's in the starting lineup," he said. "He's a guy that does a lot of different things that allows you to win basketball games. So, I'm just thankful that he found a way to kind of push through some of those dark times."
For Wenzel, the slate has been wiped.
He switched his jersey number from five to one, the same digit he wore while he was averaging 24.1 points per night at O'Connor High School. Wicks joked that they used to feed Wenzel "Oprah Winfrey shakes" and do constant weigh-ins.
Now, Wenzel said he feels like the "old me."
"That means a lot," he said, referring to Linder's belief in him. "I think him thinking that I can be one of the more skilled players on the team is huge news to hear and it's a really big confidence booster. But I can't let it get to my head. I just have to come in, day in and day out, and just keep doing what I'm doing.
"I need to be for the team and not just one of the guys on the team, but make this team better with everything that I can."
The Cowboys open the season Monday night inside the Arena-Auditorium against Colorado Christian. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. Mountain Time