‘They have no idea what they’re about to see this year’
LARAMIE -- COVID-19 presented plenty of challenges for Jeff Linder during his first season on the sideline in Laramie.
So did youth and injuries.
Whether it was due contact tracing or lack of bodies, the Cowboys couldn't practiced at 5-on-5. Games were canceled last-minute. When they did happen, rarely was there a single soul in the stands.
During his initial press conference of the 2021-22 season, Wyoming's head basketball coach chose instead to point to one of the few positives from last season.
All 6-foot-10, 245 pounds of him, in fact.
"It's one of those deals where it was actually one of the good things about COVID -- probably the only thing -- that he was actually able to play and get real reps," Linder said of the his freshman forward, Graham Ike. "If not, and if COVID doesn't exist and you don't get that free year, I mean, we were going to redshirt him."
The Aurora, Colorado product missed the first 13 games of his college career while he recovered from an ACL tear he suffered during his senior season at Overland High School. While that injury maybe scared off other programs, Linder knew Ike would be worth the wait.
In just seven starts -- 12 total games -- Ike averaged more than 11 points per game and nearly 5.5 rebounds. His best outing came in the Cowboys opening-round game of the Mountain West Tournament. Ike hit 12-of-14 field-goal attempts and netted a game-high 32 points in an 111-80 rout of San Jose State.
That was the best offensive performance from a freshman in the history of the tourney.
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He also faced his "welcome to college basketball moment" last March in Logan.
Neemais Queta, the Aggies 7-foot, 248-pound post player, made life miserable for the rookie, holding Ike to just 1-of-6 shooting to go along with two rebounds in 19 minutes of play. Queta finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds. He added five blocks for good measure.
"Graham got to see what it's like to play against a pro," Linder said after the 72-59 loss to Utah State. "Everyone talks about wanting to be a pro until you actually walk into a real guy."
That was then.
And, yes, that was a learning curve that will only benefit Ike when he faces the likes of Mountain West big men -- Orlando Robinson, Nathan Mensah, David Roddy and Abu Kigab, among others -- this season.
"For him to have the opportunity to come back in the middle of January to be able to get the amount of games, the amount of minutes and the amount of reps that he got in, I mean, it's just going to make him that much better this year," Linder said. "As good as people maybe thought he was last year, I mean, they have no idea what they're about to see this year."
Linder added that Ike, now fully healthy and with a year of offseason conditioning under his belt, has dropped from 22% body fat to 12. The 19-year-old's body has "changed dramatically," according to his head coach.
His 7-foot, 5-inch wingspan, hasn't.
"I think he could end up being one of the best post players in college basketball, sooner than later," he said. "I just look forward to having him out there and for the fans to see, because he's a guy that you don't see very often in college basketball with his ability not just to play with his back to the basket, but his ability to be a guy that you can put the ball in his hands on the perimeter and be a guy that can make plays."