For those who bore witness to last year's game between Wyoming and San Diego State in Laramie, Wyo., where the Cowboys held the Aztecs to a mere nine first half points en route to an upset victory, there were all-too-fresh "trap game" implications once again hovering over the No. 5 team in the nation on Tuesday night.
As you may have heard (during every single pause in last night's action), Wyoming is a tough place to play. It has the highest elevation of any Division I public institution in the country just over 7,100 feet, and it sits on the remote high plains of the least populated state in the country.
These are all facts, and that is part of the reason that Wyoming was able to upset the fifth-ranked team in the country.
However, it is also well-documented that pretty much anywhere you visit in the Mountain West Conference carries an advantage of roughly a 70 percent or higher home court winning percentage, and places such as The Pit and Thomas & Mack Center enjoy over 80 percent advantage. Moral of the story - it's hard to play on the road. But it's also hard to beat the No. 5 team in the country that comes cruising into town on a 20-game winning streak.
The Cowboys, however, are no strangers to close games against stiff opponents, with 10 contests this season being decided by five points or less, and four of those being decided in overtime. When a team undergoes such repetitive situational pressure, they become mentally conditioned to it merely being "The Way" rather than the anomaly or the exception; what results is the calm and collected Wyoming team we witnessed last night.
Head coach Larry Shyatt enforces a style of play that is risk-averse and draws sharp criticism from many data-head sports analysts. Where they see a Wyoming team that is 299th in the country in points per game (65.9) and 346th in rebounds per game (29.4), Shyatt see's a team that is consistently patient and disciplined in seeking out high quality shots, which can be seen in their near 50 percent shooting on the season - 10th best in the country.
After all, you don't have to rebound as often if your shots are going in the bucket more often. If all else fails offensively for the Cowboys, they are able to fall back on their signature stout defense that has only allowed over 70 points once this season.
All things aside, Wyoming put together a phenomenal end-to-end performance Tuesday night in order to barely escape with a win against the Aztecs, who assisted Wyoming's cause with poor shooting (38 percent) and an uncharacteristically slow start by the Aztec's lead man Xavier Thames. The Cowboys put together a 58 percent shooting performance and were able to knock down critical free throws down the stretch. Where SDSU applied defensive pressure that most teams eventually succumb to, Wyoming was often able to hang on long enough to find the open man near the basket.
As Coach Shyatt later explained,"I think we took a lot less risks tonight than San Diego State did. It ended up that San Diego State took a lot of risks on defense, but we were able to find open people -- sometimes on ugly possessions -- but we would find people open for a layup or a dunk."
Though this victory certainly proves Wyoming's conference legitimacy with a much needed high-profile win, it does very little for their NCAA Tournament hopes beyond not allowing the door to slam completely shut on them. The Cowboys show glimpses of excellence but need to continue to weed out inconsistencies in their game, close out the season by winning at least six of the seven remaining conference games, and will likely need to make it to the Mountain West Championship game in order to enter "the bubble" discussions for an NCAA Tournament bid.
The Aztecs on the other hand will likely face harsh punishment from the pollsters given the current low favorability of the MWC in post-season discussions. However, a couple of wins at home over the next week should help repair their national reputation and gear them up for a final grueling lineup of difficult road games and a pair of contests against New Mexico to close out their conference schedule.