Foundation of Four: Cowboys Basketball Opens Fall Workouts Thursday
For all the attention Wyoming's new basketball coach, Jeff Linder, received for putting together what was ranked the best recruiting class in the Mountain West Conference last spring -- and a school-best 47th-ranking on the national level -- that is actually No. 2 on his list of accomplishments.
Nah, before he started a rebuilding project for a team that lost two players to graduation, five who transferred with eligibility remaining, and a sixth, Austin Mueller, who after two years of battling a surgically repaired knee and with a chance to graduate at the end of the fall semester, Linder knew he had to have a foundation in place.
And he does. With the Cowboys taking part in the first official workouts of the fall on Thursday, Linder admits the Front Range Foursome -- Pine Bluffs native Hunter Thompson, and the Colorado Front Range trio of Hunter Maldonado, Kwane Marble and Kenny Foster -- will be a critical part of a revamping of the Cowboy program, which fell on hard times the last two seasons.
"Those four guys are a big part," said Linder. "The biggest thing for me when I got the job was to make sure I kept those four guys. They can help you win Division 1 games. The experience they have over the course of time, they are ready to try and prove people wrong.
"They want to try to do some things differently in order to try to win games. They really have come with the right approach. It's hard sometimes with a new coaching staff. They have to learn a new language, a new terminology, a different way to do things. They have had to adjust to that a bit."
The four bought into the new approach, lock, stock and barrel.
Defensively, there's not a lot of difference.
"There is a lot more reading and reacting and playing in space," said Linder. "I am not big on, `We are going to run set play after set play.' It's not football. So teaching those guys how to play today, that's how you beat San Diego State, UNLV, the teams that are really athletic. You are not going to beat those guys by running set plays. It's too easy for them to take you out of it."
And there was a hint of what the holdovers are capable of accomplishing during the Mountain West tournament last March when Wyoming upset Colorado State in the first round and Nevada in the second round to advance to the semi-finals, where they came up short against eventual tournament champion Utah State. The four of them were among the top five in terms of minutes played in the three games in Las Vegas.
Two wins? Big deal?
Well, in those three games the Cowboys won as many games against MW teams as they did in 18 games during the regular season.
"I think it was big in the case of a guy like Kwon Marble, who over the course of the season didn't have the chance to play a lot," said Linder, aware that Marble played more than nine minutes just once in the first 12 games of the season, and didn't even get on the court in three of them.
That, however, changed once conference season rolled around.
"Hunter Maldonado was probably about 60 percent," said Linder. "Bigest thing with him is getting him back to as close to 100 percent as possible. Hunter Thompson has really taken a big step in the right direction, just with his conditioning."
And then there is Kenny Foster, the Colorado High School Player of the Year two years ago.
"A lot of people had probably too big of expectations for him his freshman year," said Linder. "He's a guy who is shooting a ball as good as anybody on our team. It's a matter of making him believe again that he has talent, which was obviously the reason he got here, the reason he was the Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year. The deal for him is to understand when he steps on the court he can be that type of player at his level."
And the Cowboys did have a recruiting class that shows promise, featuring five high school products, and three junior college transfers, including Irishman Eoin Nelson, who played just one year at Otero (Colo.) Junior College, giving him three years of eligibility with Wyoming.
Xavier DuSell arrives after being selected one of the top 10 high school basketball players in Arizona, and Marcus Williams was ranked the third best player in the Greater Houston, Texas area. It speaks volumes for Linder that initially he was able to lure them to commit to Northern Colorado, and when he took the job at Wyoming, without any outside pressure, they both were allowed to change their commitment and come to Wyoming.
Jeremiah Oden, recruited out of Sunrise Christian Academy, has the potential to be a the head of the class. Wyoming was among more than a dozen schools that offered him, including St. Bonaventure, Minnesota, and DePaul.
Recruiting was a challenge in light of the late start that came with changing schools in the middle of March. But it is apparent Linder was up to the challenge.
Now comes the next step -- the biggest step -- regaining the faith of the Wyoming fans, who saw the Cowboys go a combined 17-48 the last two seasons, including 6-30 in Mountain West regular-season play.
"It's a battle every day," Linder said when asked about making the players feel they can win. "The one thing all the players know is we aren't going to look the other way. They are going to be held accountable every possession to the thing we believe helps you win games, and it's not necessarily putting a ball in the basket.
"It is about the little things that go into it. The biggest thing for our guys is they are going to be held accountable for things every day. They have nothing to do with basketball, and they have everything to do with basketball -- their character, their community, their body language and their response."
The success is built off more than what happens on the court.
"Biggest thing for me, as much as coaching offense, defense, I coach body language," he said. "Making sure they understand we have to carry ourselves a certain way and everything is not going to be sunshine and cupcakes every day or possession. You chose what your response is going to be. So getting these guys to understand if things don't go the way we want it you have a choice. You can either pout about it or you can work to get it back."
And Linder isn't looking for pouters.
He's looking for winners.