Wyoming’s Jeff Linder: ‘This Team Could Surprise Some People’
LARAMIE -- Reason for optimism? With this group?
Jeff Linder says, absolutely.
This Wyoming team returns only about 10% of its offensive output. Nine players entered the NCAA Transfer Portal at year's end. That came on the heels of an injury-riddled 9-22 campaign that saw the reigning Mountain West Preseason Player of the Year never leave the bench and three others departed the program with eight games remaining in the regular season.
Linder might believe, but the league's media certainly doesn't.
The Cowboys were picked to finish 10th, only Air Force is expected to be worse.
Guess how much the fourth-year head coach cares about those votes?
"Our collective grit, our collective toughness and our ability," Linder said of where this confidence comes from. "Like I said, we've got some good players. We've got some really good offensive players. I'd much rather figure out how to get stops as opposed to trying to figure out how to score."
The collective chip on this program's shoulder is matched only by the players it brought in this offseason. The guys who are expected to reinvent Cowboy basketball were once afterthoughts, most not even considered to be Division-I talent.
Now, they're in Laramie and expected to fill up the stat sheet.
Mason Walters is a perfect example.
The reigning NAIA National Player of the Year received just two offers out of Jamestown High School. Those were both at the D2 level. He instead decided to stay in his North Dakota hometown, where he averaged 22.4 points per game to go along with 10.4 rebounds at the University of Jamestown.
Linder said the versatile 6-foot-9, 221-pound forward could be an All-Mountain West selection during his lone season on the high plains. Unfortunately, as the bench boss got word today, Walters' debut will be put on hold after suffering a thumb injury on his non-shooting hand that will keep him out of the lineup for the entirety of the non-conference slate.
Wyoming also lost guard Kenny Foster for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
"You know, that's a big blow," Linder said of Walters, who has 2,662 career points and 1,239 boards. "You know, his presence -- the ability to play big -- he's a really good player. Unfortunately, nobody feels sorry for you. So, now we got next man up."
That man could be 6-foot-9 true freshman Cam Manyawu, according to Linder.
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Another player who received little love out of high school is Akuel Kot.
The 6-foot-2 senior shooting guard spent his four-year career at Fort Lewis College (Colo.) where he went from "nothing," Linder said, to a First Team All-American. Kot, an Amarillo, Texas product, netted a program-record 801 points a season ago, averaging 23.4 points per game. Twice he was named tp the All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Team. He was that league's tournament MVP in 2023.
"They have the ability to make shots," Linder said of Walters and Kot. "There's a lot of guys in Division-I men's basketball, they can't make shots. Their ball doesn't go in. Those two guys, I think they're professional scorers."
Will it translate to this level? Linder, again, says, yes.
There's another scorer on this squad, too -- Sam Griffin.
The senior transfer from Miami has proven to be deadly from the perimeter, sinking 244 3-pointers in just 115 college games. Griffin has scored 1,497 career points while spending two seasons at UT-Arlington and the last couple at Tulsa. Wyoming's newest point guard led the Golden Hurricane, averaging more than 15 points per outing last year.
"He just has an ability to put the ball in the basket," UW assistant coach Ken DeWeese said, adding Griffin brings plenty of maturity and experience to the floor. "He's another guy where the ball just goes in. We haven't necessarily had guards like him and Akuel since we've been here. You can almost say Marcus (Williams) a little bit, but they both score the ball so much better than Marcus."
Linder said he can envision a lineup that features Griffin at the point and Kot at the other guard spot. Brendan Wenzel, who averaged 7.9 points per game a season ago, should man the wing. Caden Powell and eventually Walters could roam the paint at the five and four sports, respectively.
That potential lineup, along with rookies like Kael Combs, Nigle Cook, Jacob Theodosiou and Manyawu will also need to make an impact, along with transfers Kobe Newton (Fullerton College) and Oleg Kojenets (Nebraska).
Linder said last week at Mountain West Media Days that this Wyoming squad could surprise some folks.
He doubled down again Thursday.
So did his team.
"The last two, three years, we've been a dribble-down team, you know, and everybody knew what was coming," Wenzel said. "This year, I don't really think anyone knows what to expect. We can still get into dribble downs with Mason, Caden or Cam, but we have so many shooters and we have so many people who can move the ball that now if we get into multiple actions, multiple screens, we're going to be really hard to guard.
"So, I think that's why we have a high ceiling ... We have so many pieces."
"I think we can shoot really well and create great spacing," he said. "Spacing is the most important thing in basketball. You need space to work. You need space to get in lanes. You can't shoot if the lane is always clogged. That's where teams have to respect Brendan (shooting) 40%, Mason -- 40% and Akuel -- 40%. The court just gets bigger."
Walters said it's that underdog mentality that could make the Cowboys dangerous.
"I just think we have a group of guys who maybe were slept on, so to speak, or underappreciated like me coming from NAIA or Akuel being from D2," he said. "I think we know what it takes to grind and work. I just think if we play with that edge we can surprise a lot of teams."
Wyoming will take part in a scrimmage this weekend before hosting Metro State next Friday night inside the Arena-Auditorium. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. Linder's Pokes will open the regular season at home Nov. 7 against Northern New Mexico College.
"I think that the way we've been trending and the group that we have, I mean, we have a chance," Linder said. "It might be a little bit later now, because you lose a guy that's 22 years old, has a lot of experience and made you really hard to guard in a lot of different ways, but we're still going to be hard to guard.
"When (Walters) comes back, we can be that much harder."
University of Wyoming’s Top 50 Football Players
Gallery Credit: 7220Sports.com
- University of Wyoming’s Top 50 Football Players