Wyoming Head Coach Jeff Linder is Finding His “Fight” Again
LARAMIE -- Jeff Linder admittedly lost his fight.
Who could blame him?
Wyoming's fourth-year head coach went through the ringer last season. It lingered long after the final whistle, too.
Linder's father, Bruce, battled an undisclosed illness throughout the year, forcing him to miss practices and games, including the Cowboys' one-and-done trip to the Mountain West tournament. He passed away at home in Colorado on March 9. He was 72.
There was plenty of turmoil within. Three players -- Max Agbonkpolo, Jake Kyman and Ethan Anderson -- all unexpectedly left the team in early February with eight games remaining in the regular season.
The minute the NCAA Transfer Portal opened, Noah Reynolds hoped in it. Jeremiah Oden followed. So did Xavier DuSell, Nate Barnhart and the conference's preseason player of the year, Graham Ike. Coaches left the program, too.
Injuries -- the freak kind and the serious -- forced Linder to utilize a different lineup nearly every night.
There were multiple travel snafus, including getting stuck in a snowbank off Highway 287 for several hours. The team was also forced to bus back from Phoenix after a meeting with Saint Mary's in late December.
In a calendar year, Wyoming went from the Big Dance to the cellar, winning just nine games in 2022-23.
Murphy's Law prevailed.
After the Cowboys' miraculous comeback win over Border War rival Colorado State last Saturday in Laramie, one that took a 12-1 run over the final 71 seconds to force overtime, and an 11-point overtime outburst from Akuel Kot, Linder simply grinned and slowly shook his head.
You were in disbelief. So was he.
"At least you guys can't talk about turnovers," Linder joked as he sat down in front of the microphones and television cameras. "I'm not sure what to say -- speechless. I'm not sure what happened."
What happened was grit, toughness and a refuse-to-lose attitude.
Those are the traits Linder built this program with back in a COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. That's what led the Cowboys to the First Four of the NCAA Tournament a season later.
That is showing again.
"It took me a little while for me to kind of get my fight back when you kind of go through what you went through last year," Linder said postgame. "I'm not a very good coach when I sit back."
Linder built this current roster with overlooked players and a foursome of loyalists: Brendan Wenzel, Caden Powell, Cort Roberson and Kenny Foster.
Despite being named Mr. North Dakota Basketball in high school, Mason Walters wasn't a sought-after commodity. The "big boys" in the state never came calling. All the 6-foot-9 forward did was become a three-time All-American and the NAIA Player of the Year at his hometown school, the University of Jamestown.
Kot didn't have many options, either.
The slender guard from Amarillo, Texas, was named a First Team All-American at Fort Lewis College (Colo.,) a season ago. He spent four seasons in Durango. During his final year, he averaged 23.4 points per game. That ranked fourth in all of Division-II basketball.
Sam Griffin has gone from journeyman to the Cowboys' leading scorer. The senior is netting nearly 19 points an outing. He has scored in double-figures in every game this season but two. Twice he's scored 26 points in a game, including in a 98-93 victory over a Nevada team that was on the brink of cracking the Top 25.
He spent two seasons at UT-Arlington. Two more at Tulsa. He has never looked more at home than he does inside the Arena-Auditorium.
These guys all came to Laramie with a chip on their shoulder. They all have something to prove.
So does their head coach.
"I don't care what people think," Linder said. "These guys in the locker room will tell you, they're starting to see the fighter in me come out again. That's what my teams are and I'm not gonna apologize for anything, but we're going to fight.
"That's what those dudes are doing right now, they're fighting."