COACH AND PROGRAM
Wyoming fans are welcoming new head coach Heath Schroyer with the hope he will return the program to a place it hasn't been since Schroyer was last in Laramie -- the NCAA Tourna-ment.
Schroyer was an assistant at Wyoming for one year -- the Cowboys' stirring 22-9 2001-02 season that included an upset of Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. After the Cowboys' success, the then-30-year-old Schroyer was hired as head coach at Portland State. Not coincidentally, the Vikings' AD at the time was current Wyoming boss Tom Burman.
Schroyer left Portland State after only three years but did nothing to diminish his rep, engineering one of the nation's most impressive turnarounds. The Vikings won just five games his first year but went 19-9 and captured their first conference championship in the 2004-05 season. He left Portland State to work for his mentor Steve Cleveland at Fresno State.
While success seemed to follow Schroyer, the Cowboys, under the guidance of Steve McClain, began to struggle after Schroyer left the program. The NCAA Tournament run raised the bar for the program, but after going 21-11 and reaching the NIT the following season, the Cowboys didn't finish more than two games over .500 in any of McClain's last four campaigns and attendance fell nearly 40 percent.
Despite having one of the nation's most potent backcourts, Wyoming, beset by a series of close losses -- it was 0-4 in games decided by two points or less -- was 17-15 last season and failed to finish with a winning MWC record for the fourth consecutive season. Throw in an embarrassing brawl at the end of a 91-83 loss at New Mexico, and Burman decided it was time for McClain's nine-year run in Laramie to end.
Under Schroyer's direction, Cowboys' fans will see a different brand of basketball. Wyoming will run more four-out, one-in motion offense, a development that should lead to a faster pace of play. Defensively, the Cowboys will play an aggressive man-to-man and pressure the opposition all over the court.
''I believe at the end of the day you are going to win or lose basketball games on [the defensive] end of the floor, especially late in the year,'' Schroyer said. ''We are going to pick up 94 feet. For us, playing at 7,200 feet [altitude] is an advantage, and we need to utilize that advantage.''
Another advantage Schroyer will enjoy is the return of a pair of high-scoring guards, senior Brad Jones (18.1 rpg, 5.1 rpg, 4.5 apg) and junior Brandon Ewing (19.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.1 apg). Ewing, who became the first player in Wyoming history to surpass the 1,000-point mark before the end of his sophomore season, led the MWC in scoring, and Jones was the only player to rank among the top five in scoring and assists.
Both players attack relentlessly and get to the free-throw line almost at will. The 6-1 Jones, who runs the point, averaged 8.0 free throw attempts per game, converting 78 percent of them, while Ewing, a 6-2 shooting guard, averaged 7.7 attempts, making 80 percent of them.
But free throws weren't the only shots the duo attempted in bulk. Despite sitting out a combined three games because of suspensions in the aftermath of the New Mexico brawl (Jones sat for two games, Ewing one), the duo combined to attempt a 46.8 percent of Wyoming's field-goal attempts. When the fact that they shot 61.7 percent of Wyoming's free throws is taken into account, a potential weakness is discovered -- this team's attack wasn't very diversified.
Ewing, who scored at least 20 points 16 times, shot a respectable 44 percent from the floor, despite making just 29.9 percent of his three-point attempts. Jones didn't fare as well, shooting 39.6 percent from the floor and 31.1 percent from three-point range.
With an emphasis on having an opportunistic offense and pressure defense, Schroyer doesn't want to handcuff his high-scoring guards, either of whom is capable of carrying the team to victory. But he would like them to be a little more judicious in their shot selection.
''The biggest thing I talked to those guys about is their shooting percentages,'' Schroyer said. ''I think we need to shoot a better percentage as a basketball team, and those guys took a lot of shots. I talked to them about how we are going to get as many high-percentage shots as we can and how are we going to limit high percentage shots for our opponents. It sounds simple but that is what we have to concentrate on.''
One way to eliminate high percentage shots for the opposition will be to limit turnovers, something Jones struggled with, coughing the ball up 4.3 times per game.
There will be changes for Ewing and Jones, as there will be for the entire team, but they will be at the heart of Wyoming's success. Their shooting stroke may occasionally go off line, but they are dynamic scorers and seem to have embraced Schroyer's philosphy early in the process, taking on leadership roles in the spring and summer.
''They've been great,'' Schroyer said. ''I think they've really bought in. They've provided really sound leadership from the weight room to individual workouts through the spring.''
There won't be many minutes available playing behind Ewing, a second team All-MWC pick, and Jones, a third-team selection. Both players averaged 37 minutes per game. The question is who will play alongside them.
The starting small forward position is unexpectedly up for grabs after James Spencer's (10.5 ppg, 3.8 apg) departure.
Wyoming's third leading scorer last season, Spencer, who had a year of eligibility remaining, and the Cowboys mutually agreed to part ways.
On paper, 6-5 sophomore Eric Platt (6.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg) would seem to be the choice, but with Schroyer looking to play up-tempo, Platt might be best suited for a sixth-man role. He was second in the MWC in scoring among freshman last season and he is the team's best returning shooter, making 43 three-pointers. Schroyer lauds Platt's basketball IQ, but he will likely need to prove that he can beat people off the dribble to earn a starting job.
If Platt isn't the starter at small forward, sophomore Ryan Dermody (2.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg) probably will be. Dermody, who transferred to Wyoming after walking on at Colorado, became eli-gible at midyear last season. After playing sporadically in the early going, he played an increasingly prominent role as the season wore on, averaging more than 18 minutes of play in the last 10 games.
Dermody never found his outside shooting stroke, making just 4-of-21 three-pointers, but Schroyer believes he is a candidate for a breakout season.
Freshmen Marios Matalon (Thessaloniki, Greece) and Afam Muojeke (Jamaica Queens, N.Y./Genesis One Prep) also hope to make an impact. The 6-3 Matalon has significant interna-tional experience, playing for the Greek Under 20 National Team last summer. He should be a productive player but will have a cultural adjustment to make. How quickly Matalon assimilates to living in the United States could have direct bearing on his playing time.
The 6-6 Muojeke is a true wing player. He averaged 23.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists in helping lead Genesis One to a 21-14 record as a senior. Muojeke is the prototype for what Schroyer is looking for -- long, athletic and he can shoot. If those traits translate in Laramie, he could be a factor this season.
The Cowboys' lone returning frontcourt player is 6-8 senior Joseph Taylor (5.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 42 blocked shots), who earned Schroyer's praise with his work throughout the spring and summer. In his first year after transferring from L.A. City Community College, Taylor provided a gritty defensive presence, defending multiple positions and rebounding effectively.
He has worked to expand his offensive game, particularly on the perimeter, but his strength will once again be on the glass. He led Wyoming in offensive rebounding last season and was fifth in the league in blocked shots.
The starting spot alongside Taylor is unsettled. The top two returnees are 6-11 sophomore Travis Nelson (1.7 ppg, 1.0 rpg) and Bienvenu Songondo (1.7 ppg, 1.2 rpg), neither of whom has much experience.
A trio of newcomers is expected to figure prominently in Wyoming's frontcourt rotation. Tyson Johnson (20.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg), a junior transfer from Blinn (Texas) College, should be an immediate contributor. At 6-6 and 230 pounds, his body and game are more suited for banging in the paint, but he isn't devoid of perimeter skills. Johnson was the second leading junior-college scorer in Region XIV and was third in rebounding. Johnson also shot 46 percent from three-point range, though he was selective from the perimeter, attempting just 52 shots.
Adam Waddell from Cody (Wyo.) High School a 6-9 freshman whose mother played basketball and his father football at Wyoming, could develop into a force down low. He's tough but may take some time to adjust the level of competition.
Wyoming's most intriguing prospect is Mikhail Linskens, a 7-0 freshman from Belgium. Linskens, who played for Belgium's Under 20 National Team over the summer, speaks three lan-guages and has the trademark versatility of Euro big men. He averaged nine points and five rebounds for his Belgium club team, shooting 39 percent from three-point range. In Schroyer's words, it's a matter of ''when, not if'' Linskens emerges as a productive player. ''How quick can he adjust to the United States?'' Schroyer said. ''He's never been in the country, so as far as all the cultural things and basketball wise [he will have an adjustment period]. The thing I love about Mikhail is he is willing to work hard and he is a great kid. He is legit 7-foot and really skilled.''
Wyoming will be one of the league's more interesting teams. The backcourt combination of Ewing and Jones gives the Cowboys the ability to beat anyone, but the duo will need help if the team is to improve significantly.
Getting Ewing and Jones help is a two-part process. They will have to work to get their teammates involved, potentially at the cost of their own offense. The second part of the equation is the supporting cast will need to take advantage of opportunities so Ewing and Jones, who scored 49 percent of Wyoming's points last season, don't feel compelled to do it all.
Taylor and Platt are a couple of nice returning pieces, but Schroyer's first recruiting class will need to produce.
Johnson, Linskens, Matalon and Muojeke will have to develop quickly, which is probably asking too much in a league like the Mountain West, where road wins are about as easy to come by as a balmy January day in Laramie.
Wyoming shouldn't be an easy win for anyone, but the challenge for the Cowboys is becoming more than just the proverbial team no one wants to face. Playing with the type of consis-tency needed to finish in the league's upper third won't be easy, but if the players buy into Schroyer's philosophy, the Cowboys have a chance to finish above .500 in league play for the first time since 2002.
Last Season 17-15 (.531)
Conference Record 7-9 (5th)
Starters Lost/Returning 2/3
Coach Heath Schroyer (Armstrong Atlantic State '85)
Record At School First year
Career Record 35-47 (3 years)
RPI Last 5 years 65-129-121-172-123
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS