Veteran Cowboy Team Enters First Season In Mountain West Conference

Oct. 20, 1999


With the return of 10 lettermen, and all five starters, including one of the Mountain West Conference's premier players, Head coach Steve McClain has lots of reasons to smile about the upcoming season, his second at the University of Wyoming.

Ugo Udezue, who became a standout as a sophomore last year to lead the Cowboys in scoring and rebounding, paces a team that returns its top eight scorers from last year's 18-10 team that advanced to the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.

?I think for the first time in a few years this program has a large nucleus of returning players who have played in the same system,? McClain said. ?Because of that, and the caliber of players we have in the program, there is every reason to be very optimistic. Our next step is the NCAA Tournament. Our challenge is can we be a better defensive team on the road? If we can accomplish that, if we can be as good defensively on the road as we are at home, then I think we will be tough to handle. I?m excited, and looking forward to getting things going.?

Udezue burst onto the scene a year ago after being a spot player as a freshman. He finished 29th in the nation in scoring at 20.5 per game, and was a second-team All-WAC selection. He became one of only 12 players in Wyoming school history to average over 20 per game for a single season. During his final 11 games of the year, he was unstoppable. He scored 20 or more points in 10 of those 11, including 33 at Air Force, 32 vs. Texas-Pan American, 31 at SMU, 28 vs USC in the first round of the NIT, and at TCU, 26 vs. Colorado State and 25 each against Tulsa and Rice.

?Without question Ugo is one of the premier players in the league,? McClain said. ?He made a tremendous jump from his freshman to his sophomore year, and all indications are he can make a similar jump this season. He deserves the respect of the league, and I think he is going to get it. I would suspect he will be a marked man this season. I think he is looking forward to that challenge.?

The great thing about Udezue is that he is by no means the only firepower the Cowboys have returning. Two-guard Anthony Blakes and forward LeDarion Jones also finished the season in double digits. As redshirt juniors they averaged 11.4 and 10.8 points respectively. Blakes, the team?s most athletic performer, tied Udezue for the team lead in rebounding at 7.4 per, and was selected to the conference?s All-Defensive team. Jones, who missed four of the final six games of the regular season due to a knee injury, played very well, and could have a break-out season as a senior. He started 22 games.

A pair of freshmen became big-time players for the Cowboys in their first seasons. Point guard Chris McMillian started all 28 games for the team, and was outstanding. He averaged almost 10 points and five assists per game, and demonstrated a ton of mental and physical toughness. Mighty Mac led the team in minutes played, assists and free-throw shooting. He also was second in steals, and ranked among the Top 20 individuals in the WAC in all three of those categories.

His frosh mate, forward Josh Davis, displayed the same grit and savvy in averaging almost nine per game and six rebounds. Had he not been hampered by ankle problems, he would have been a Rookie of the Year candidate. An excellent shooter, Davis proved to be a rugged inside player with excellent tools.

?McMillian was something,? McClain said. ?There are not many guys who can start every game at point guard as a true freshman, and be as effective as he was. He was a team leader, and played a big role in getting us to postseason. While last year he worried about surviving, now he can work on being better. Josh is very capable of putting up bigger and better numbers and accepting the challenge of doing that. ?

Sophomore guard Brett McFall, junior forward Justin French and junior guard Bradley Mann performed yeoman duty off the bench. McFall's passing, French's work ethic and Mann's deadly three-point shooting were all key factors for the Cowboys. McFall averaged five points and four assists per game, and it seemed every time he was on the court, he made a pass, or a shot that ignited the team. French started 11 games for the Cowboys, most of them down the stretch, and averaged five points and almost four rebounds. Mann broke into the Cowboy career three-point list, and finished the year seventh all-time.

In addition to those returnees, McClain will welcome the return of Andy Young who missed all but one game a year ago with a hip injury. Young, who started all 28 games for the Cowboys during the 1997-98 season, and was very effective, returns healthy and ready to go as a point-guard. He and McMillian should make that position as strong as any in the Mountain West.

The team will be shy at least one, and possibly two inside lettermen. John Pettersson, who played very well last season as a true freshmen, has decided to remain in his native Sweden to play professionally, and will not return. He was a big body, and would have been a plus inside. The Cowboys also may be without senior inside player Antone Lostetter, who has had knee surgery. If he heals properly, he would give the Cowboys added depth inside where there is a definite need.

McClain is certainly excited about his newest Cowboys, three freshmen players, and two transfers. Marcus Bailey from Cheyenne, Aaron Abrams from San Diego, Calif., and Fayssal Akacem from The Netherlands. The transfers are Mark Curry from Casper, who transferred from Utah, and sat out last season, and Paris Corner, a transfer from Iowa State, who will sit out this season.

Bailey, 6-5, led the state of Wyoming in scoring as a senior averaging 28.4 points per game, while hitting 53 percent of his three-point field goal attempts, and 56 percent from the field overall. He is an individual with great ability. His father, Henry, played for the Cowboys from 1972-74, and his uncle, Craig Shanor, lettered for the Cowboys from 1973-76.

Abrams, 6-4, was named the CIF-San Diego Section Player of the Year. He averaged 20 points per game, eight rebounds and four assists. He was his league's Player of the Year, and played in a number of California all-star games.

Akacem, a 6-8, 180-pounder, will work at the power forward spot. Born in Boulder, Colo., he played for the Haaglanden Cobras in The Netherlands. He will have to make the adjustment to the college game, but has a great knack for rebounding.

Curry is very athletic, excelling in football and basketball at Casper Kelly Walsh. He attended both Utah and Black Hills State. He is an excellent shooter.

?All along we said we needed to get better from the perimeter,? McClain said. ?With Bailey, Abrams and Curry I think we have done that. I'm sure not a lot of people are expecting a lot out of these guys, but each have the ability to challenge for starting spots, and each should give us a huge boost on the perimeter. I?m very excited that we could bring in players of that caliber.?

If McClain has a major concern with his club it is, can it remain healthy? ?I think we have enough good players, but can we stay away from injury,? McClain said. ?Are we physically and mentally capable of going out and giving 40 minutes every night? That?s what we are going to have to do. We must play our best every night.

?The veterans are kids who understand what we have to do to be successful. We are undersized, no doubt about that, but I have a lot of faith in the work ethic of this group. I believe they will go out and give it 40 every night.?

McClain's Evaluation by Position:

Point Guard: ?This is the position with our greatest depth. Chris McMillian started every game for us as a freshman, and improved each game. He also had a great summer of hard work, and I think he?s even better than he was. He understands what we want done, and how to do it. I think he has a chance to be one of the better point guards in our league. Brett McFall played a lot of minutes for us last year as a sophomore, both at the one and at the two. He has a lot of experience on the court, and certainly gave us a spark when he came off the bench. He gives us a great one-two punch with McMillian. A real plus for us is the fact Andy Young has returned after a year away due to injury. He?s a veteran with a lot of savvy. He started every game for the team two years ago at the point, so his experience will be invaluable. I would imagine we will be as deep at this position as anyone in the conference. In addition both Brett and Andy are combination-type players. I feel very good about this position.?

Two Guard: ?When we talk about this position we start with Anthony Blakes. He is our returning starter, and really had a great season as a junior last year. Our system probably fits him as well as anyone on the team. He is capable of a 20-point, 10-rebound night. Toward the second half of the season he played more under control in our system. When league play began he really started playing within the system, and became even more effective. In addition to his scoring, we expect him to be one of our top three rebounders. As I mentioned we also will utilize McFall at this spot every once in awhile. Once Marcus Bailey makes the adjustment from the prep game to the collegiate game, he will be an excellent contributor. He made a lot of strides during the summer, and had an excellent preseason. He is a guard with good size, and an excellent athlete. I expect that he will play some minutes as a true freshman. He fits the kind of athlete we recruit. He shoots the ball well from three, and he can create shots. He's the kind of player we can get excited about.?

Three (Small Forward): ?We have another returning starter here in LeDarion Jones. He has not been able to be involved in preseason work because he is recovering from knee surgery. But he needs to step up and play well his senior year. We need him to rebound, and score 12 to 15 points a game. He is very capable of doing that. We are counting on him to come back and give us those kind of numbers. LD needs to become tougher and more physical. He will even play some ?four? for us so he needs to be physical. If we are going to have success this season, LD is going to have to contribute. Another senior, who has seen a lot of minutes, will play behind LD. Bradley Mann has played in a lot of big games for us. We have been able to count on him to give us instant offense. He established that last year. He can really be a plus for us if he can improve defensively. There is no doubt he has to be a piece of our puzzle. We also have a freshman here whom we think will be able to help us in his first year. Aaron Abrams had an excellent preseason due mainly because of his great work ethic. Physically he is ahead of most freshmen, a very strong, athletic young man. The question about him is one that is the same for all freshmen, will he learn to adjust to the system quick enough? He can play the three spot and guard a 6-7 guy. I think he is capable of five to seven rebounds a game. He is a slasher who takes it strong, and does a nice job of finishing.?

Power Forward (Four): ?We have another returnee here in sophomore Josh Davis. He had an outstanding freshman season. It would have been even better had he not been slowed by ankle injuries. He worked hard in the summer and in the preseason. He is bigger, and stronger. When he struggled last season it was because he wasn?t physically ready. I believe he is now. He played in big games for us, and played well. We expect him to pick up his offense and board production. He should be a double-figures rebounder and scorer. He is very capable of that, but he must remain healthy. He is now physically stronger to handle the rigors of college ball. As I mentioned we will also utilize LeDarion Jones here at times. Making the position even stronger for us is the fact we have a seasoned veteran here who will see a lot of minutes in Justin French. Justin is a senior with a lot of big-game minutes under his belt. He brings a physical presence to the four spot. He struggled a bit with his identity a year ago because we had to use him on the perimeter. He knows his role at the four, and is more comfortable than he was at three. He has great fundamentals. We do not worry about him with larger players. Even though he is just 6-6 he can handle the position very well.?

Post Position (Five): ?Ugo Udezue is our starter here, and our most dominating player. He came into his own last season and established himself as a five. There is no doubt people will pay a lot more attention to him this season. The key is can he handle last year?s success? Can he put up the same kind of numbers. If he can, he will be the key to our team. There is no doubt he can average double figures in both scoring and rebounding. He is capable. He does have to learn to be more creative offensively. He needs to add some things to his game, and he has worked on that. We would like to move him from the hoop a little. We are going to move him around, and hopefully make it easier for him. We are counting on him to have a big year for us. We will use Josh Davis here some. There are times when Ugo is going to need a break, or is going to be in foul trouble. Josh will spell him. Fayssal Akacem is a freshman from The Netherlands who is going through what foreign players go through, and that is adjusting to the physical play of the collegiate game here in this country. He is somewhat of an unknown, but by the time conference season rolls around he could give us a few minutes per game.?