After a turbulent 2022-23 season, the Cowboy basketball team is embracing the underdog role

Published: Oct. 25, 2023 at 5:00 PM CDT
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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (Wyoming News Now) - The perception of Wyoming Men’s Basketball shifted drastically over the past year to say the least.

Fresh off of an NCAA Tournament appearance, the team entered the 2022-23 season as the favorites to win the Mountain West. They returned the conference Player of the Year in Graham Ike (along with six other key contributors), brought in three PAC-12 transfers, and had the Cowboy State-- and national pundits-- buzzing with excitement to see them put it all together on the floor.

The first domino fell shortly before the season: Ike had suffered a lower leg injury with an indefinite timetable for return. Then after the first few weeks of gameplay, various other ailments plagued the Cowboys and they struggled to tread water. In February of 2023, head coach Jeff Linder announced the PAC-12 trio (Ethan Anderson, Max Agbonkpolo, and Jake Kyman) were no longer a part of the team-- raising questions about what was going on behind the scenes. The Cowboys finished at 9-21, and the damage snowballed into all but four players leaving the program.

Seniors Brendan Wenzel and Kenny Foster and sophomores Caden Powell and Cort Roberson stuck around throughout an offseason of revamping the team. However only Wenzel and Powell will likely see meaningful minutes in the 2023-24 season; Foster unfortunately suffered a torn Achilles, and Roberson-- a walk on-- saw just three minutes of game action last season. Wenzel said his belief in Linder was why he chose to remain committed to the program.

“I feel like it says enough [about him] that I stayed, you know? I trust him, and I trust the coaching staff. I want to play at the next level, and I feel like he’s the one that can get me there. So that’s the reason I stayed,” Wenzel said. “I know he’s a good coach. Some pieces don’t fit for some coaches. It’s really hard to play for some coaches, and he’s a hard coach to play for. So I feel like I do the right things, I work hard, I’m about the right stuff. So I trust him and that’s the reason why I stayed.”

Linder wasted no time finding players who were also bought into the program; he recruited five experienced transfers and a hefty six-man freshman class to round out the roster. With so many new faces joining the team, everyone knew they had to put in overtime to build high-level chemistry.

“We did a lot of team activities this summer to just bond with everybody, get to know one another, have fun with each other while we were here working out. So it was nice,” Powell said.

“Just getting the connection with my teammates mostly [was the biggest focus]. You know seeing the guys and how they play. So I can play off them, they can play off me honestly. The chemistry is the most important thing. We’ve got some good players, and everybody’s gonna have to be ready to perform,” Tulsa transfer Sam Griffin said.

The confidence within the team is already there. Wyoming has the talent, experience, and leadership; their success will boil down to whether they can put it all together with the new-look roster. There’s plenty of doubt from the outside; the Pokes were picked to finish tenth in the conference at Mountain West Media Day, but they use it as fuel to silence the naysayers.

“The rankings stuff don’t mean nothing technically when the game starts and all that. But just them having you at tenth place is just kind of showing you that they don’t believe that you’ll be towards the top, and that’s just motivating for us. For me personally, that just goes into how much harder we’ve gotta work, and how much extra we’ve gotta put on the table,” Fort Lewis College transfer Akuel Kot said.

“Playing with an edge, I think we can use [the doubt] to our advantage. You know [we can] have the mindset of ‘we’re the underdog, and we’re gonna come out and prove people wrong. You don’t want to go and get extra shots up? Well we’re ranked tenth. What can we do to get better every single day?’ I think we can use that [mindset] to our advantage and really shock some people,” University of Jamestown transfer Mason Walters said.

“You know to be the underdog, and people doubt you. But we were picked eighth and ninth two years ago when we won 25 games and went to the NCAA Tournament. We were picked first and second last year and look what happened,” Linder said. “I think with these guys, you don’t have to motivate them in terms of what the media decided to pick us. They’ve already got a good chip on their shoulder, the coaching staff’s got a chip on their shoulder. Now you just gotta go out and you gotta prove it.”