30 teams in 30 days 2022-2023 college hoops preview: No. 28 Wyoming Cowboys
As hard as it is to believe, college basketball tips off in just about one month from now - and to get you ready for the season, Aaron Torres Online will be giving you 30 previews in the coming 30 days to get you ready for the start of the year, all written by Torres Online. college basketball writer Zac Krull.
Last week we started with the always intriguing Memphis Tigers and followed it up with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Today we switch gears to the Mountain West, where we discuss the Wyoming Cowboys.
Jeff Linder's club got an at-large bid and made a play-in game appearance last year - and with two stars back and three marquee transfers, that could be just the beginning in Laramie.
How it went down in 2021-2022
In only his second year in Laramie, Cowboys Head Coach Jeff Linder led Wyoming to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. This was after spending a majority of the season ranked in the Top 25 and picking up major victories over NCAA Tournament teams Boise State and Colorado State. In 2022, Wyoming won 25 games which was their most victories in a season since that aforementioned 2015 NCAA Tournament team. This came after the Cowboys were picked to finish eighth, alongside New Mexico in the preseason Mountain West poll. They also lost Mountain West Freshman of the Year Marcus Williams to the transfer portal.
And the truth is, after watching a lot of Wyoming last season, it felt that the team was better than what their resume actually showed. On the court, Wyoming looked like a clear-cut NCAA Tournament team and at many points during the season, a top 25 team. However, when you play outside the “Power 6” Conferences, the harsh reality is that you're just not going to get as many chances for quality wins as some of the other teams that you are competing with on the crowded bubble.
Wyoming’s season ended in somewhat disappointing fashion, with a "First Four" loss in the NCAA Tournament against Indiana, but there aren’t many coaches in the country I’d rather buy stock in right now than Jeff Linder. He is a rising star with three 20-win seasons at Northern Colorado (including a CIT victory) and of course last year's NCAA Tournament run. He also went over .500 in his first year at Wyoming as well.
The 2022 season was one to remember for Wyoming fans, making the NCAA Tournament almost completely out of nowhere.
The best part: They should be even better this year.
What You Need To Know About 2022-2023
Key Returnees: Graham Ike, Hunter Maldonado, Jeremiah Oden, Xavier DuSell, Brendan Wentzel, Hunter Thompson, Noah Reynolds
Key Losses: Drake Jeffries
Key Transfers: Max Agbonkpolo (USC), Ethan Anderson (USC), Ethan Anderson (USC)
Key Recruits: Caden Powell
Wyoming will be returning just about everyone from last year’s team that made the NCAA Tournament, from their head coach to virtually all the key personnel.
It starts at the top, where there will be very few duos in not only the Mountain West, but all of college basketball better than Hunter Maldonado and Graham Ike. Wyoming’s dynamic duo has played in a combined 173 career games, and both will be ready for one last ride in Laramie.
Ike emerged as Wyoming’s leading scorer and rebounder last season, stuffing the stat sheet in both categories. After only averaging 11.1 points in 21.3 minutes per game in only 12 games played as a freshman, Ike improved his numbers to 19.3 points per game which was third in the Mountain West Conference, plus 9.6 rebounds per game which was second in the conference. The big man had 14 double doubles last season, in 33 games and should have gotten much more national attention after the season he had. After such an impressive leap, Ike could be in store for an absolute monster season playing with more talent and space around him, which could make things much easier for the big man in the paint.
Hunter Maldonado will be returning to Laramie for his sixth and final season, and the 6’7 lead guard has experienced a lot during his time at Wyoming. Maldonado’s story is unique, considering the fact that he’s played under two coaches during his time at Wyoming, and we have seen a completely new side of Maldonado since the arrival of Jeff Linder. Wyoming won only 40 percent of its games in the first three years of Maldonado’s career under former head coach Allen Edwards. Linder has transformed Maldonado into a completely different player, which has helped Wyoming emerge as a major threat in the Mountain West. Part of what makes Maldonao’s game so impressive is despite his size at 6’7”, he has never been a great shooter, but still finds a way to score the ball and impact the game at all times. Maldonado finished second in the Mountain West in assists per game last season with 6.3, while also having the ability to score the ball from outside the paint, while the opposing defense was focused on stopping Ike inside the paint.
While Wyoming does return one of the best duos in all of College Basketball, the Cowboys did lose Drake Jeffries, who was the team's best three-point shooter from a season ago and could have been a very difficult piece to replace.
To his credit though, Jeff Linder went to work in the transfer portal and brought in some major additions. Three former Pac-12 players Max Agponkpolo (USC), Ethan Anderson (USC) and Jake Kyman (UCLA) all visited and committed to Wyoming in a span of 24 hours in April. Each committed shortly thereafter and what makes this transfer class so appealing, is that each player does a different thing well that will ultimately help this Wyoming team be successful.
Anderson emerged for USC, starting 15 games at point guard late in his freshman season in 2020. The 6 '1' guard has become one of the better on ball defenders in the country, averaging just under one steal per game last season, which should go well alongside a more offensive polished player in Maldonado. Agponkpolo also came from USC, after playing a prominent role over the course of the last three seasons, each of which USC won over 20 games. Incredibly, in their three seasons at 'SC, the Trojans won more games than every power conference team except Kansas and Baylor - a fact few realize. For Linder, to bring in two productive recruits from that program, in a 24 hour span, shows just how much this Wyoming program is really on the rise.
Jake Kyman is another key transfer coming in from the Pac 12 that will really help this Wyoming team and in particular the loss of Jeffries. Kyman spent the last three seasons playing for Mick Cronin at UCLA, and while he could never find a premium consistent role in the Bruins rotation, there were many times he showed flashes of being a really good player. During his freshman season, Kyman helped UCLA pull a stunning comeback win over Washington, by hitting seven threes and scoring 21 points out of absolute nowhere. UCLA had a ton of really talented players over the course of Kyman’s time there from Johnny Juzang, to Tyger Campbell, to David Singleton to Jules Bernard. Now in Laramie, there is a clear role for Kyman, who fits in great with a Wyoming team looking for three-point shooting after the departure of Jeffries.
Finally, Wyoming will be bringing back some valuable role players from last season that should also really help make an impact on this year’s team. The Cowboys will be returning seven out of their eight leading scorers from a season ago including role players like Jeremiah Oden, Xavier DuSell and Brendan Wentzel. Having experience like this is valuable, especially to a team that has serious aspirations to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Oden shot 30 percent from three last season, but seemed to make some really big shots over the course of the season, while also improving as time went on. DuSell was Wyoming’s fourth leading scorer during the 2021 season, averaging 9.7 points per game and could easily get back to that form as a valuable piece.
This Wyoming team has a great mix of stars, transfers and experienced role players, alongside a really good head coach in Jeff Linder.
The harsh reality when it comes to teams outside the power six trying to get an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament is that they just don’t get as many chances for quality wins as a team in one of those power conferences. Just last season, Wyoming was ranked in the AP Top 25 throughout the season, but struggled to get an at-large because of a weak out of conference schedule and one or two bad losses late in league play (most notably at UNLV). Wyoming shouldn’t have been playing in the First Four in Dayton and if they got out of that round, they easily could have done some serious damage.
Last season, Wyoming did earn a Pac 12 Conference victory over Washington, and played in the Diamond Head Classic over the Christmas Break. However, the Cowboys non-conference slate just didn’t give them enough opportunities to move the needle. While Wyoming’s full schedule for the 2022-2023 season hasn’t been fully released yet, the Cowboys will be taking on a Dayton team in Chicago at the United Center, which will definitely give them a chance for a quality win. Similar to Wyoming, Dayton is a team outside the power six that has some serious aspirations for a deep NCAA Tournament run. Dayton did beat the National Champions Kansas and they are one of the better teams in the Atlantic 10. Like Wyoming, they just didn’t have the resume to back it up and they will be returning just about everyone from last season and should be a fringe Top 25 team.
In the conference, Wyoming will feature fellow league favorite San Diego State twice, including a matchup at Viejas Arena to close the 2022-2023 regular season.
What to Expect in 2022-2023
After surprising many and making it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, Wyoming will go through the very difficult transition of becoming the hunted after being off people's radar at this time last year.
First off, in 2022-2023 there will be wins to be had in the Mountain West, simply because other programs appear to have taken a step back. San Diego State, as mentioned above, is stacked. But Colorado State will be losing four of their top eight scorers from last year’s team that earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Boise State, who also made the NCAA Tournament last season, will be losing three members of their starting five , including two of their three leading scorers in Abu Kigab and Emmanuel Akot.
Considering Wyoming will be returning so much talent, alongside a very good transfer portal class, there is no reason why the Cowboys shouldn’t be one of the best two teams in the Mountain West.
During his time at not only Wyoming but also Northern Colorado, Jeff Linder has done a great job doing more with less. Linder has won over 20 games in four of his six seasons as a head coach, with one of them being that shortened COVID season. This group of players will be the most talented group he’s had by a large margin, in large part thanks to the group of transfers brought in to repair the obvious holes last year’s team had.
There aren’t 10 coaches in College Basketball that I would like to buy stock in for the rest of their coaching careers then Linder and Wyoming will be playing in their second consecutive NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1987 and 1988.
Wyoming has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2002 and has not made the Sweet 16 since 1987. If there was anyone who could lead them back to the promised land, it would be Jeff Linder this season and Wyoming fans should enter the basketball season very excited about their Pokes.
Read previous previews here:
No. 30 - Memphis Tigers
No. 29 - Illinois Fighting Illini
Follow Zac on Twitter - @ZacKrull_