Wyoming Basketball Coaches Play ‘Psychologist’ During Trying Season
LARAMIE -- Sundance Wicks is more than just the hyper, fun-loving coach on Wyoming's staff.
Sure, he brings the "juice" -- After all, he says, that is his job -- but there's a bright basketball mind behind that wide, inviting grin. X's and O's are second nature for this extrovert, but this season, as you know by now, has brought plenty of its own unique challenges.
Turns out, adversity is one of his specialties, too.
"We all have to be well-rounded, we all have to be psychologists and we all have to have that chair that's open for the kids to come in and talk," the Cowboys' third-year assistant said Thursday, adding that film study, recruiting and scouting never changes. "I think the role evolves and you adapt to the situation that you're in. There have been a lot more couch sessions this year."
No one thought Wyoming, a team that was Dancing in Dayton last March, would be looking for just its 10th win of the year in the regular-season finale. Some even had Saturday night's game at San Diego State circled as a much-anticipated tilt with championship implications.
Instead, the Aztecs, with a win, can claim the outright crown. The Pokes are already earmarked for the 11th and final seed at next week's Mountain West Tournament.
Fans once begged for basketball season to arrive. It's easy to see why, too.
Graham Ike, the conference's preseason Player of the Year, was back. So was fellow first-team selection Hunter Maldonado along with a whole host of untapped talent like Jeremiah Oden, Xavier DuSell, Noah Reynolds and many others. Toss in three incoming transfers, all from Power-5 programs, and Jeff Linder's Cowpokes were riding high and dominating the headlines.
National basketball writers quickly pinned the bright red bull's-eye on UW's back this offseason, one, Andy Katz, even dubbing them a dark horse to reach the Final Four.
Now, just shy of a year since an emotional Selection Sunday in Laramie, the faithful are crying "Uncle."
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That's easy to see why, also.
Ike never stepped foot on the court this season. Speaking of foot, his right one never cooperated after suffering what would be an unspecified season-ending injury just days before the opener. The 6-foot-9, 255-pound Colorado product and his 20 points per game average relegated to sweat suits and moral support from the bench.
Reynolds was a pleasant surprise.
He didn't see a single minute in that First Four game against Indiana. The chip on his shoulder was evident from the jump. During a five-game stretch from late November through December, the sophomore netted at least 20 points per night, including a 30-point outing in a rare win, this one against Texas A&M-Commerce.
It was too good to be true though, especially this year.
Reynolds was sidelined in early February after suffering his third concussion in six months. Linder said doctors can fix broken bones, not brains. Reynolds was far from alone in wearing out a path to the trainer's room. Maldonado joined him there a couple times. So did Brendan Wenzel, Kenny Foster, Jake Kyman and Oden.
Hunter Thompson also missed five games with mononucleosis. It was the third time he's received that diagnosis since arriving in Laramie back in 2017.
You can't make this stuff up.
Misfortune wasn't only reserved for the guys in uniform, either. Assistant coaches Marc Rodgers and Shaun Vandiver have undergone mid-season surgeries. Wicks himself dealt with a family matter in January. Today, he pinch hit for Linder in the team's weekly press conference. Wyoming's bench boss is in Denver with his ailing father. He also missed a home game against Utah State nine days ago.
We're not done quite yet.
Those celebrated offseason acquisitions -- Ethan Anderson, Max Agbonkpolo and Kyman -- bolted back to California Feb. 7, less than 24 hours before the Cowboys hosted UNLV. Sources in Los Angeles claim mistreatment. Linder, if you read between the lines, has insinuated otherwise.
While Wicks didn't share details or specifics of those personal behind-the-scenes conversations with this shell-shocked roster, he did offer some insight of the gospel that has been preached inside that locker room all season long.
"At the end of the day, you have to learn how to handle success and failure," he said. "You can't just throw failure to the side and say, 'Well, that's not fair. I failed and we don't have to learn from this.' And you can't just win and say, 'We're just winning and we're always going to win.
"They're both imposters. Success and failure are both imposters and you treat them as such. So you just go forward each and every single day, understanding that there's a lot of micro-adversities that are going to happen on Thursday in Laradise in the middle of frickin March and February. So, how are we going to respond to those?"
Despite the disaster listed above, this team has continued to fight. It hasn't been perfect -- Linder warned us it would be far from -- but the pride, effort and desire are no longer in question. Wyoming found a way to slip past Border War rival Colorado State at home. It won in Albuquerque's Pit, potentially sticking the sharp end of the needle right into the Lobos' Bubble Yum.
Speaking of bursting balloons, the Cowboys gutted out a heartwarming win over Nevada on senior night last Monday, sending Maldonado and Thompson out on top on their home floor.
Wicks said through all of this his energy and enthusiasm hasn't wavered. He's just wired differently. He chalks that up to an assist from the Big Man upstairs.
"The good Lord has blessed me because I believe in just giving everything you have to everybody around you. That's my gift," he added. "I know this, if I don't use it, God's going to take it away."
I asked Wicks if, like so many of us, he likes to daydream about what this program could look like next November. The potential returning talent alone makes this team dangerous, but there's a new element that could make it downright special.
They will have a score to settle.
"Yes, this entire team should have a chip on their shoulder," he said matter-of-factly. "The people that come back -- whoever decides to come back and 'Ride for the Brand' like they should ... and have that Poke pride -- they should have a chip on their shoulder. You never just shut the season off and say, 'This year didn't exist. This year didn't happen.' You should take all these little things that happened in the course of this year and use those as lessons for the future and grow from that, learn from that. And that will make you a remarkable team next year, having learned those lessons and stayed the course.
"But I do like to daydream."