LARAMIE – Jeff Linder has mentioned how squeezing in the postponed games makes it feel like the Cowboys are playing an NBA schedule.
Without the perks.
Wyoming followed up last week’s emotional wins over preseason Mountain West favorite Colorado State and first-place Boise State with a taxing 61-59 victory at Fresno State on Sunday night to cap a week in which the program returned to the national spotlight.
Linder noted that after flying from Fresno, California, back to Laramie, his players would have a short night, followed by a long day of classes Monday.
“They’re not LeBron James, they’re not Kevin Durant, where you could sleep in and have somebody give you a massage and get ready to roll for the next one,” Linder said. “The schedule is nuts, but there are no excuses. Everybody else is doing the same thing. Just gotta find ways to win the next one.”
The Cowboys (19-3, 8-1) continue the march to March against Utah State on Tuesday at the Arena-Auditorium (7 p.m., MW Network/Stadium).
After a three-week pause, UW opened conference play with a 71-69 victory over the Aggies (15-9, 6-5) on Jan. 15.
Utah State, led by double-double machine Justin Bean (18.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg), has won five consecutive games by an average margin of 21.0 points.
“Now we’ve got to get ready to roll for a team that is playing as well as anybody in the league right now,” Linder said. “That Dome of Doom needs to be rocking and rolling on Tuesday.”
The Pokes nearly entered the matchup ranked in The Associated Press poll for the first time in seven years. UW did not crack the top 25 released Monday, but Linder’s surging squad had the most points (81) of any teams in the “also receiving votes” category.
UW was No. 30 in the NET rankings Monday. Boise State (34), CSU (40), Utah State (43), San Diego State (54) and Fresno State (56) also have solid numbers in the metric used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
The Cowboys were named the national team of the week by ESPN and NCAA digital reporter Andy Katz.
“Even though the noise is nice, and considering the fact of where things have been, for Wyoming to be cast in that type of light, that only allows a program to grow,” Linder said of the exposure created by the team’s ascension to the top of the standings.
The 2021-22 Pokes are off to their best start in conference play since the 2001-02 team was 8-1 on the way to a regular-season title and NCAA Tournament at-large berth.
“It’s a fine line in this league between everybody,” Linder said. “Hopefully over the course of these next 35 (days) before selection Sunday, we can keep finding ways to get better and hopefully have a chance to be there.”
Hunter Maldonado became the first UW player to be named the MW player of the week three times in a single season. The 6-foot-7 point forward averaged 24.0 points, 6.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds in the three wins.
Maldonado, who scored a career-high 35 points in the Border War, leads the conference in assists (6.2 apg) and is third in scoring (19.3 ppg).
UW’s other MW player of the year candidate, Graham Ike, is second in the conference in scoring (20.0 ppg) behind UNLV’s Bryce Hamilton (21.2 ppg) and third in rebounding (8.9 ppg).
During Saturday’s practice, Linder challenged the team’s role players – specifically Hunter Thompson – to contribute more significantly to the push toward a conference title.
The 6-foot-10 Thompson made two timely 3-pointers against Fresno State. The senior from Pine Bluffs also held his own defensively against the 7-foot center Orlando Robinson, who finished with 11 points on a career-worst 4-for-17 shooting from the field, even though Ike played limited minutes due to foul trouble.
“It’s not always the easiest pill to swallow when you get called out,” Thompson said. “But coach Linder, it was rightly deserved and it was something I needed to hear. I wanted to show him what I’m capable of doing. I took it like a man as best I could and just ultimately decided to respond the way that I needed to respond.”
Brendan Wenzel finished with 12 points and finished with seven rebounds to help the Pokes out-rebound the Bulldogs by 18. Jeremiah Oden averaged 13.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in the wins over CSU and Boise State.
“It starts with the coaches,” Oden said after finishing with 13 points on 4-for-5 shooting against Boise State. “They’ve been telling me they need more out of me, more consistency. I’m just going on my own time, getting my mental together, getting my confidence together and trying to do the best I can for this team.”
Drake Jeffries, despite being a marked man on opposing scouting reports, remains UW’s third-leading scorer (10.9 ppg) and rebounder (5.2 rpg).
Xavier DuSell, who lost his starting job after suffering a hamstring injury in the first meeting with Utah State, is also expected to give the rotation a boost when he rediscovers his early-season form.
“When you have a group of guys that are all bought in, have really high character, are smart and truly care about one another, then you can do really special things,” Linder said. “To be 19-3, that’s a credit to those guys that go out and practice every day and don’t give days off and aren’t allowed days off.
“They want to be coached, and there’s a lot of guys out there that don’t want to be coached and guys that want to take days off.”
Follow UW beat writer Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @By_RyanThorburn
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