They're one of the youngest college basketball teams in the nation. Not a single senior on the roster. But Wyoming's basketball men hardly look like it this early season.
Jeff Linder has his first signature win in Cowboy Country after his guys rallied Sunday night to knock off Oregon State on the road. They earned it in blue-collar fashion, clamping down on defense for the stretch run of a 76-73 win. Wyoming held Oregon State without a field goal -- on OSU's own court -- in the final 5:46 and, after trailing by as many as 11 points, closed on a 10-1 run.
“Our defensive effort in the second half, man, I had no idea it was as good as it was," Linder marveled after Wyoming's win. "I knew we were getting stops but I didn’t realize they had only shot 24 percent. Also for Xavier DuSell as a true freshman to guard a guy that’s a preseason All-Pac-12 player in Ethan Thompson, to do defensively what he did to him, it’s a big step in the right direction.”
So a true freshman was notable on the defensive end and a sophomore led the Cowboys offensively with Kenny Foster's 19 points -- five of those in the final minute. Foster was named Mountain West Conference player of the week on Monday.
“I just thought that coming on the road for the first time with one of the youngest teams in the country," Linder continued, "... playing against a team that has experience, for us to withstand the first-half punch, and I knew in the second half if we could stay close and survive that first five minutes, we could have a chance to win the game.”
And that they did. Yes, it’s early, but Sunday’s outcome elevates Wyoming to 3-1 with a road win over a Pac-12 team.
Rewind to March — St. Patrick’s Day, actually — when Linder was named Wyoming’s new head coach. The Cowboys brought him up from Northern Colorado where, in just four years, his guys set school record after record. Linder led the Bears to three straight 20-win seasons in the Big Sky Conference. In that stretch, he also set the mark for most UNC wins in a three-year span with 69.
The faithful in Laramie are hoping for more of the same and Linder knows it starts when nobody’s watching.
“Being held accountable. Everything you do and every rep you take in practice, especially on the defensive end of the floor," Linder explained of his workout philosophy. "That gives you a chance to win on the road.”
Something you won’t see in the box score: the in-game animation of Wyoming’s bench players.
“On that bench you have a choice to be in your own feelings or to bring energy, or as we call it, juice," Linder said. "And we’ll show the players, how is the bench responding? How does the bench act? The cameras, the eye in the sky doesn’t lie. We’ll show them, regardless of whether you’re winning the game or losing the game, this is what a winning bench looks like and they’re held accountable to it.”
Wyoming’s only hiccup to this point was actually at home, a two-point loss Wednesday to a Texas Southern team that’s playing anybody anywhere right now: at Washington State, Oklahoma State, Saint Mary’s, Auburn, BYU, USC and TCU.
As for the Cowboys, they were picked ninth in the Mountain West Conference preseason poll -- possibly justified with the uncertainty of a new head coach and a roster void of a single senior.
But if early indications are on target, odds are these Cowboys will finish a lot higher. Their next step is Wednesday night at home against Denver University.