LARAMIE – Without hesitation, Wyoming guard Hunter Maldonado can recite with nearly perfect accuracy the last time he stepped on the court for game action at the Arena-Auditorium.
It was Dec. 11, 2018.
Maldonado played in eight games a season ago for the Cowboys, averaging 13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds. But during a home matchup with the University of Denver last winter, Maldonado, a redshirt sophomore, took a nasty fall that injured his back, left knee and ankle. The injury was bad enough that Maldonado was taken off the court in a wheelchair.
Maldonado’s injury was emblematic of a Cowboys season that went astray.
The Pokes finished last in the Mountain West Conference in 2018-19 with an 8-24 record. They were outscored by an average of nearly 10 points per game. Included in their schedule was a five-game losing streak, as well as a six-game losing streak.
But Maldonado, who redshirted amid his injuries, said he feels as good as he has in a while. He and the Cowboys are champing at the bit to take to their home floor again tonight in an exhibition matchup against Northwest Nazarene. The Pokes are looking to put a brutal 2018-19 season in the rearview mirror.
“I know I’m excited,” Maldonado said. “(We’re going to) keep doing what we’ve been doing (and) compete how we know how to compete.”
The Cowboys are looking to reverse last year’s fortunes by hanging their hats on the ever-cliché notion of “team ball.” Part of that is by necessity, as the team lost star Justin James (22 points per game) to the NBA. Wyoming scored 65.8 points per game a season ago, which ranked last in the Mountain West. The Cowboys also shot just 41.7% from the field, which ranked second-to-last in the conference.
No one player is expecting to pick up the scoring slack by himself, senior guard Jake Henricks said. In a way, not relying on a single player makes things exciting. On any given night, a different Cowboy can take over.
“It’s going to be a team effort, for sure,” Hendricks said. “I think that’s going to make playing with each other a lot more fun. None of us cares about our individual stats.”
Where the Cowboys plan on making their mark, however, is on the defensive end of the floor. Last season’s metrics weren’t awful, but the Pokes hope to improve: Wyoming ranked No. 9 in the conference in scoring defense in 2018-19 (75.3 points per game) and No. 5 in field goal defense (44.4%).
A defensive mentality is infectious. It is the identity the Pokes want to be associated with. They have spent the offseason building their culture around it. So much so, in fact, that when asked what his goals are for the season, Maldonado, again without the slightest bit of hesitation, said he hopes to be the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.
While some players might want to average 20 points per game or be named first team All-Mountain West, Maldonado believes that, if he earns defensive accolades, it likely means the rest of the team has followed suit.
“If I were able to do that, I think it’s just proving to everybody that watches our basketball what our culture’s about,” Maldonado said. “By doing that, I’m only making our team better.”
NNU, of the NCAA’s Division II, could provide the Pokes with a solid preseason test. NNU (20-8 overall in 2018-19) averaged 84.5 points per game last season, which ranked No. 30 of 300 schools. The Nighthawks like to push the pace and play with tempo.
“It’ll be a perfect test of what we worked on all summer and all preseason,” Hendricks said. “They like to push it in transition, and that’s our cardio … and they’re a team that likes to play one-on-one basketball, so it’ll be a perfect test to see how far we’ve come.”
Fourth-year head coach Allen Edwards said he does not plan on redshirting any of his players this season, and he feels comfortable with a rotation of nine or 10. His tentative starting lineup for the NNU game is Maldonado, Hendricks, redshirt forward Austin Mueller and sophomore guard/forward T.J. Taylor or sophomore forward Hunter Thompson. Of the team’s eight returning players, six averaged 20 or more minutes a game last season.
Tonight's game is, in a way, like a closed scrimmage, Edwards said. But that doesn’t mean he can’t learn something about his team in the process prior to their regular-season opener Nov. 5 against Idaho State.
“The biggest message to our guys has been defending and rebounding. So I'm really, really keyed in on that. We will be very vanilla, offensively. I don't think there's a need to go deep into your offensive playbook in an exhibition game,” Edwards said. “My main focus would be on our energy and effort on the defensive side of the ball and how well we rebound it.”
Maldonado, for one, can’t wait to show what he’s made of. It’s been a process 323 days in the making.
“It’s been a while,” he said. “I’m just really excited to get back out there with the guys.”
Michael Katz is a writer for WyoSports. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelLKatz.