Oct. 23, 2001
LARAMIE, Wyo. -
There are plenty of high expectations in store for Wyoming's 2001-02 basketball team.
Head coach Steve McClain and his Cowboys can't wait for the challenge.
With all five starters, including First Team All-Mountain West Conference selections Josh Davis and Marcus Bailey, and nine lettermen returning from last year's 20-10 outfit that won the league title, the Cowboys could be one of the more highly-regarded teams in the country. An invitation to one of the nation's premier early-season tournaments, the Preseason NIT, is an illustration of that respect. Mountain West Conference media representatives expect the Cowboys to be strong, as well. They gave them the nod to win the Mountain West Conference crown at the annual media day event in early October.
"We are certainly aware of what the expectations are, and we look forward to that challenge," McClain said. "I think this team is ready for it. The attitude and work ethic has been unbelievable. Their effort is in keeping with the kind of season they want to have. They have great expectations for the season. Guys like Josh (Davis), Chris (McMillian), and Ugo (Udezue) have been around a long time. They understand there will be higher expectations for this team than for any Cowboy squad in a long time.
"These guys tasted it last year with an excellent season, and they earned some rewards -- a conference title and postseason play. I believe they are hungry for more.
"To be named the preseason favorite doesn't win any games, that is true, but it does indicate a measure of respect," McClain continued. "That means a great deal to us. We certainly understand that our fans, and the area media are excited about the prospects for this team. But to receive so many votes at the preseason meetings tells us that the league and beyond feels the same way. That's a mark we needed to reach.
"Sure, it's pressure, but our guys spent a good portion of last season in first place, with teams chasing them. That was great experience for them. They understand a little bit more about pressure and about being at the top. That should serve them well during this very challenging season."
The Cowboys lost just two players from last year's team in guards Brett McFall, who graduated, and Scottie Vines, who opted to play football for the Cowboys. With those exceptions, the entire team returns. Plus McClain is pleased with three new players recruited to the program -- freshman point guard Jason Straight and junior college shooting guards Brandon Dickerson and Donta Richardson.
"I really like working with our new kids," said McClain. "I feel that all three can help this program. Each offers skills that will make this team better. Obviously, that is what we try to do with each recruiting class. I think they fit in with our veterans, which is very important. Because the veterans have experienced success, the younger guys can learn a great deal. The veterans are accepting that responsibility, and doing what we expected them to do. They are totally committed to having a great season and winning a championship. The young guys are learning about and accepting those expectations."
According to McClain, those young players had a very productive summer. "Jason and Donta spent time here during the summer, and it helped them. Brandon couldn't spend time here because he had to work, but we feel good about what he can contribute after seeing him during our individuals workouts," McClain said.
"Each player, veteran and newcomer alike, has made strides," McClain continued. "They are bigger and stronger. (Ronell) Mingo, for example, has put on 20 pounds. Uche (Nsonwu-Amadi) is much stronger. I think Ugo made great progress during the summer. He feels better about himself, and has much more confidence in that knee. If he can come back strong, he adds so much more to our attack.
"This is the first time Josh didn't spend the summer rehabilitating an injury. Because he was able to concentrate on improving rather than healing, he made outstanding gains. Since he utilized the summer to improve, he should become a more consistent player. Playing with the all-star team in Greece during the summer also should have a very positive affect on his game."
McClain expects McMillian to have an outstanding senior year. The head coach is not concerned about his starting point guard returning to full strength and being a major contributor. McMillian is coming back after breaking his leg in a summer softball game. "Chris (McMillian) has improved each season, so we expect him to be even better his final year," McClain said. "We expect him to run the team more effectively, and become an even better leader. The same is expected of Paris (Corner) who has been in the program long enough to totally understand what we want done. Marcus (Bailey) is another year older, and it's fun to think about how much better he will be as a junior. I feel the same about the younger players like (David) Rottinghaus, (Joe) Ries and (Alex) Dunn."
Last season, the Cowboys won 20 games for the first time in a decade, and enjoyed their first conference championship in 15 years. Both Bailey and Davis turned in outstanding seasons, and were instrumental in that win production.
Bailey led the team in scoring at 17.4 points per outing, and was the team's most consistent player. Yet he saved his best for the big games. He scored 33 against Utah and 34 in the regular-season finale at UNLV. He was certainly much more than just a scorer. He was ranked in seven MWC statistical categories, including: free-throw percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, assists, steals, field-goal percentage and rebounding. He earned MWC Player of the Week honors twice during the season.
Davis produced an outstanding year that led to conference media members naming him MWC Player of the Year. He finished the regular campaign with a 13.5 point-per-game average. He added 9.4 rebounds per game which led the Mountain West. He is now listed among Wyoming's Top Ten rebounders. Davis is a member of the 1,000-point club. He is one of only nine Cowboys in history to score 1,000 points and grab 700 rebounds. Davis is also one of four Cowboys to block at least 100 shots in a career, and he heads into his senior year with 24 career double-doubles.
Nsonwu-Amadi should establish himself as one of collegiate basketball's outstanding big men this season. In his first year of competition, he averaged 11.8 points per game and 8.3 rebounds. He led the league from wire-to-wire in field goal percentage finishing at .602. The Cowboys are expecting him to play as solid in the middle as any post player in the league.
Mingo, who started 10 games for the Cowboys, should improve his numbers, and become even a more effective force inside. He finished his junior season averaging nearly seven points and four rebounds per game. He was big on the boards and outstanding on defense down the stretch. As much as any other member of the squad, he worked hard to improve himself during the off-season.
The guy who adds high octane to McBasketball is McMillian. Averaging nearly seven points per game last year, the senior -- who has started every game for the Cowboys during his career -- is most effective distributing the basketball. He averaged 4.2 assists per game to rank No. 3 in the MWC. He also is one of the better defensive players in the conference.
Corner and Rottinghaus both demonstrated that they can shoot from the perimeter and play well defensively. They will be called upon to contribute in both areas. Ries, who saw considerable minutes as a true freshman -- often in very key situations -- should make big strides as should Dunn, the redshirt freshman. Dunn, who has become bigger and stronger, should be effective in spelling Nsonwu-Amadi.
McClain is excited about his newest Cowboys. Even though he is a true freshman, Straight should be an effective backup to McMillian at point. Extremely quick and very offensive minded, he is a highly-touted player from Chicago. His contribution will be immediate, especially in pushing McMillian in practice. Richardson and Dickerson were recruited to give the Cowboys more firepower from the perimeter. Richardson is an outstanding shooter and scorer, and Dickerson is highly thought of, as well.
There is no question in McClain's mind that his outfit will be improved over last year's team that turned in that outstanding season. "I believe there are three main reasons why I think we are going to be better," he said. "First, and probably most importantly, we have more depth. We are two or three deep at every spot. With that kind of depth it may be a little easier to withstand an injury here or there and not be totally devastated.
"Last season, I think our team learned how to win on the road and that is so important in the game of basketball. It is a definite breakthrough when you can see in your players that they go on the road expecting to win. I think this group is to that point, and that is a very big thing in terms of attitude.
"The third aspect of this team that makes it improved is the fact that for the first time we have a senior class that has been in the system for more than a year or two. They understand what is expected of them. They have seen the system work, and they believe in it. They have expectations of themselves, and expectations of this team. Those expectations are very high."
With McClain's style of play, everyone gets into the act. The up-tempo game affords each Cowboy plenty of minutes. Last season, in fact, nine players averaged 11 minutes or more per game.
That should serve his team well once again for what promises to be a very challenging schedule. That schedule doesn't waste any time in its challenge to the Cowboys with the Preseason NIT. The first-round game has Wyoming traveling to Los Angeles to take on one of the nation's elite programs in the University of Southern California.
"We certainly like playing a nationally-respected team like USC early," McClain said. "There is a lot to learn from a game like that, win or lose. We know where we want to be, but that game will give us a very clear indication of where we are, and how far we have to go."
McClain is the first to admit that there are aspects of his team where he wants to see improvement. "I would like to see us become better on offense," he said. "Last year, we could never seem to get a lot of confidence offensively. That lack of confidence did not allow us to extend our defense. They certainly work hand in hand. I think we have a chance to be a great offensive team. We just have to have that confidence that nobody can stop us. Every coach wants his team to be better on the boards. We led the league last year, and I believe we can do it again this year."
Without question, McClain has breathed new life into Wyoming's once sagging basketball fortunes. He has now manufactured a 57-32 mark during his three years as the head Cowboy. That includes a 35-5 home mark. His 57 wins tie him for the most victories of any third-year coach in Wyoming school history. He and former Cowboy head man Jim Brandenburg both posted 57 wins through their first three seasons. In conference play, he has been especially effective at home. He is 18-3 in the Double A. He is only the second coach in school history to win at least 18 games in each of his first three seasons. His overall winning percentage (.640) is number four all-time for coaches who coached a minimum of three seasons at UW.
The very impressive aspect to what he has accomplished is that his teams have consistently improved. He won 18 his first season, 19 his second season and 20 his third. Brandenburg was the last coach to do that over a three-year period. In his first three seasons he won 15, 18 and 24 games respectively.
McClain's style of play and the Cowboys' success have brought fans back to the Arena-Auditorium. Last year, the Cowboys were ranked sixth in the nation in average increased attendance from the previous season. They averaged 9,085 for the year which was a jump of 2,073 fans from the previous season. That average included a record crowd of 15,456 for the Colorado State game. The season marked the third-best attendance year in Double A history. Only the 1987-88 and 1986-87 campaigns drew more.
"Our attendance is certainly an indication of how our fans feel about the program," McClain said. "It took a little while for them to buy into what we were doing. But I believe they are committed because they see the great commitment of our players and coaches. Our fans have a great attitude about our program, which is extremely important. I could see a similar jump in attendance this season."
McClain's Evaluation by Position
One (Point Guard): Chris McMillian and Jason Straight
"We have to get Chris healthy, but I'm not really worried about that," said McClain. "I thought that until he injured his wrist in the second half of last season, he was playing as well as he had during his career. He was shooting better, and hitting the perimeter shot when we really needed it. He has started every game, and we expect him to be a leader. His maturity level allows him to handle himself and the team on the court. We are expecting a great deal from him." McMillian is now third on Wyoming's career assist list with 369. He passed Mike Jackson at the end of last season. He has now started 89 consecutive games, every game of his career.
"Jason Straight is the first true point guard we have recruited since Chris. He is our future, but what he will do now is push Chris to be even better. Until now, Chris really hasn't had anyone pushing him to make him better in a true point-guard sense. Once he learns the system, I think Jason will become a very big contributor to this team. He likes the game of basketball, and he brings a toughness to our team." Straight led the Chicago Public League in scoring as a senior averaging 29.8 points per game, and was a First-Team All-State performer as a junior and a senior at Dunbar High School.
"I believe that both of these guys can be outstanding defensive players," concluded McClain. "If healthy, Chris can be as good a defender as there is in our league."
"There were times a year ago when I felt we rode on Marc Bailey's shoulders for several of our victories," McClain said. "He was so good in pressure situations, and seemed to turn his game up when we were involved in our biggest games. That is the mark of an outstanding player. We expect him to be better this season as a three-point shooter. Like he does with everything else, he has worked very hard on that aspect of his game. If he can become more proficient there, look out. He already has proven he is an all-conference performer. If he can become a more consistent player from the arc, he will be a national player. He is an outstanding defender, and should be better this season. Marc is a leader by his effort. I know every practice, every game what I'm going to get from Marc Bailey. He comes to play every day. That aspect of his game is one of the most significant in analyzing why he is so effective." In 12 of his 30 games last season, Bailey produced 20 or more points. He scored in double figures in 25 of those 30 games. He played his best in big games, scoring 34 at UNLV and 33 against Utah in the Arena-Auditorium.
" Like Jason, Donta Richardson has been extremely pleasing to us. We love his attitude toward the game. I really feel like he is going to challenge for a starting spot on the perimeter because of his ability to shoot the three and create offense. First, he gives us the three-point threat we have been missing the last two seasons. He is also a great passer, and could play the point if we really needed it. He possesses great feet and has amazing quickness. He does remind me of Anthony Blakes in his ability to create off the dribble. He is a very exciting player. Once he makes the adjustment to this level in terms of the strength aspect, he is going to be a great contributor to the program." (Pronounced DON-tay) Richardson earned First Team NJCAA All-America honors as a sophomore last season at Sheridan (Wyo.) College.
"We are very anxious to see how Paris Corner responds this season. At times, he demonstrated some outstanding things for us last year, like shooting the three. A guy who can play some point, we want to see how he fits into this latest mix. He very definitely can provide us with a threat at the arc. He is a strong player, and certainly physical enough to be an excellent defender on the perimeter." Corner had outstanding success against Missouri Valley Conference teams as a junior, scoring 14 (his career high) against Wichita State and 11 against Creighton. He also scored 14 against Brigham Young.
"Like any new player, Brandon Dickerson is facing an adjustment time. He has been improving his shooting, but his conditioning has held him back somewhat. His playing time will depend on how he can guard and how well he gets into shape. I believe he can come in and be a zone-breaker for us. He has strength, and once his conditioning comes around, he can be a heck of a defender ." In his two seasons at Copiah-Lincoln Junior College he averaged 17 points and 18 points while winning 76 percent of his games. Prior to his junior college days he was the Louisiana 4A Player of the Year.
"I think we have four outstanding players at this position. All four are capable of giving us quality minutes. In fact, we are expecting quality minutes from these guys."
"Josh Davis can be one of the most dominating players in our league or anywhere for that matter," said McClain. "He must come to play every night from both an offensive and defensive point of view. He seems to be comfortable at the three spot. It took him an adjustment period last year at that position. We may still ask him to play the four at times during the season. He can be most productive at the three. He feels much more confident about his shot, and I think he will rebound better this year. He should be an even better, more consistent player than he has been because of his maturity level, and the fact that he has been injury-free and able to concentrate on his game. He also now looks at himself as a three. He gives us a player at a very high level." Davis is one of nine Cowboys in school history to score 1,000 points and grab 700 rebounds. He was the preseason pick by MWC media as the league's Player of the Year.
"David Rottinghaus is a sophomore who returns with a great deal of experience, especially as a starter. He started 11 games for us last year, and that will prove extremely valuable to him this year. David showed signs of being outstanding last season. He has returned physically stronger and has a better understanding of what we want done, particularly on the defensive end. He is learning what he can and can't do defensively, and how to play within himself. David can really help this team. I think he will get a lot of minutes at three as a backup to Josh. He could play the two for us, as well. He can be a very good fit for us against zone defenses." Rottinghaus had the best day of his young career on the road at LSU, when he scored 16 points and hauled in six rebounds. He averaged 11.4 minutes per game as a frosh.
"All of our fans, and certainly our team hope that Ugo can have an outstanding senior season. I think he feels good about his knee, and once again has confidence in his game. His shot is back to the form that served him so well during his sophomore season. Ugo's leadership, his toughness and his presence mean so much to the team. His toughness on the boards and at the defensive end are extremely valuable to us. We certainly expect him to cause problems for opponents at the offensive end. His aggressiveness and toughness make all of our big guys better." Entering last season, Udezue was selected by Sports Illustrated as one of the nation's "Five Hidden Talents." Unfortunately, off-season knee surgery hampered his progress.
"Ronnell Mingo put on 20 good pounds, and is as physical as anyone we have. Not only is he bigger and stronger, but he is now running the floor better. We are really expecting a big senior season from him. He can block shots, and can be a very solid rebounder. He should be a major factor for us." Mingo was ranked fourth in the Mountain West in blocked shots as a junior. He had a season high six against San Diego State. Mingo scored in double figures seven times during the season.
"Joe Ries picked up a lot of quality minutes for us last season. We feel that when we put Joe in the game good things are going to happen. He has a great attitude for the game. He has become stronger and more physical, which will serve him well, because he needs to be more of a physical presence for us at the four spot. He's a young player who plays with a great deal of confidence. I believe he can be an important factor for us this season, and certainly as he grows and matures in the program." Ries was a major factor for the Cowboys in the overtime win at Colorado State with three rebounds and two points, which turned out to be the difference in the game.
"Uche constantly improved as his first year went along," said McClain. "He developed into a physical force by the end of the season. This is a very talented individual. He is capable of shooting around 65 percent from the field and hauling in 12 to 14 rebounds per game. He has returned as even more of a physical presence. He has the confidence and the ability to play his position as well as anyone in that spot. Obviously we expect him to be a huge force for us in the middle." Nsonwu-Amadi led the league in field goal percentage at .602 on his way to being named the conference's Newcomer of the Year.
"Alex has certainly benefitted from his redshirt year. He is ready to give us some quality minutes in the middle. There are spots, especially in our style of play, when Uche will need a break. Alex is now ready to step into that role. He will continue to get better. He has worked very hard, and has taken his lumps to earn himself playing time. He is an individual with toughness, and a big man with skills around the hoop, as well as defensively. He will be a very positive contributor for us, and will continue to get better and better." Dunn grew over seven inches between his junior and senior year in high school, and finished his prep career averaging over 20 points, and 12 rebounds per game.