LARAMIE, Wyo. -
When Steve McClain's sixth season at Wyoming ended at the Mountain West Conference Tournament last March, it was apparent that the face of the Cowboy team would be changing.
As the Cowboys enter the 2004-2005 campaign, they have indeed put on a new face.
In fact, a Welcome Wagon might be in order to introduce all of the new folks.
The Cowboys lost six seniors from last year's team which finished with an 11-17 overall mark, and a 4-10 standard inMWC play. They were eliminated by Brigham Young in the first round of the league's tournament at Denver, 79-74.
As always, McClain is excited about the new season, a year removed from the only losing campaign of his headcoaching career. Four returning lettermen, including two starters--senior guard Jay Straight and senior post player AlexDunn--three redshirts and eight new players are fueling that excitement.
Because he had never endured a season like last year, the campaign was a learning experience for the Cowboys'veteran leader. "Sometimes you get spoiled, and you think things will be easy, and things will work out. But a year likethat makes you, as the head coach, go back and reevaluate everything that you're doing in recruiting and coaching. Ithink I've done that, and we'll start this year with a whole new focus.
"We have some veterans like Jay and Alex who have been through a lot of big games," McClain says, "and wedefinitely have big expectations for them. But there is no question we have a lot of new faces who can help thisprogram. We had a big senior class a year ago, so it was a necessity to bring in a lot of new people. We needednumbers, and we needed size up and down the roster."
McClain believes he has satisfied those needs.
The head coach says he has been pleased by the leadership Straight, a four-year starter, and second team All-MWCselection as a junior, and Dunn, an honorable mention All-MWC player, have demonstrated while helping the newplayers adjust to the Cowboy Way. As always with new players, in large measure, the Cowboys' success will depend onhow quickly they adjust to the system and the level of play.
Straight could become only the second player in University of Wyoming history to score 1,000 career points, anddish out 400 career assists. He enters his final season with 1,045 points and 305 assists. The only player in schoolhistory to accomplish this feat is Fennis Dembo (1985-88), who scored a school best 2,311 career points with 410 assists.Straight was sixth in the Mountain West in scoring (15.7), and was third in scoring in conference games (17.6). He is28th on UW's career scoring list, and sixth on the career assist list.
Dunn scored in double figures in 10 of 27 games last season, including a 14-point night at New Mexico, and a 13-point outing at Colorado State. He tied a career high with 14 rebounds against Air Force. McClain believes the SiouxRapids, Iowa native is capable of double numbers in both points and rebounds during his senior season.
In addition to Straight and Dunn, the Cowboys have a couple of other veterans returning in 6-4 guard Dion Sherrell(Detroit, Mich.), who was a part-time starter a year ago, and 6-5 swingman Jerry Webb (St. Paul, Minn.) who saw somesignificant minutes as a junior last year.
There also are three redshirts who have not yet played a minute in a Poke jersey, to go along with the seven newplayers. Seven-foot freshman Jarrod Boswell (Lakeside, Calif.), 6-1 guard Josh Dees (Vidalia, Ga, son of former UWmen's basketball coach Benny Dees) and 6-5 sophomore Steve Leven (Airds, New South Wales, Australia).
It is Leven whom McClain believes will be an impact player for the Cowboys. A highly recruited player out of highschool, Leven originally committed to Auburn. With that program experiencing some internal challenges, hetransferred to the University of Texas, and finally landed at Wyoming. He sat out his transfer year a season ago. Hegives the Cowboys a sharpshooting threat on the outside, as well as a big, physical player defensively.
There is one thing certain about the newest Cowboys. . .while inexperienced on this level, they give the Cowboyssize, and athleticism.
McClain sees the Cowboys as better perimeter scorers than they were a year ago with Leven, and newcomers 6-6junior Kevin Lewis (Compton Community College, Los Angeles) and 6-2 junior James Ebert (Kirkwood, Iowa CommunityCollege). "All three of those guys are excellent shooters, and with their size, they make us much bigger defensively."The other perimeter newcomer is 6-1 freshman Abdullah Lawal (Plano, Texas) who will learn behind Straight at pointguard.
Inside newcomers give the Cowboys outstanding size and athleticism. There are four rookies who are 6-8 or better.All will get their chance to compete. Three are junior college players, 6-10 junior Justin Williams (Chicago, Ill, by way ofColby Community College), 6-9 junior Derek Wabbington (Phoenix, Ariz., and Northeastern Community College), 6-8sophomore Chris Anderson (Layton, Utah, and Eastern Utah Community College) and 6-10 freshman BienvenuSongondo (Central Africa Republic). "They have made us an entirely different looking team on the inside," McClainsays. "Each gives us something a little different, and we are excited to see them fit into our way of doing things.
"We want to get back to playing quicker," he continues. "We got away from that last season. The big guys fit thatstyle because they can run, block shots and finish."
McClain's schedule is challenging as always. The Pokes will travel to Arizona (Nov. 30), Dayton (Dec. 7), Creighton(Dec. 18) and Southern Illinois (Dec. 30). Princeton, Kansas State (at Casper for the Wyoming Shootout) andWashington State will visit the high country. All of that before the Cowboys begin the rigors of the Mountain WestConference.
McClain's Evaluation by Position
"I think point guard is one of our strongest areas. Because of Jay's experiencewe feel good about what this position can do, from the very start of the season. As a four-year starter, I think Jay is oneof the best, if not the best, point guards in this league, and in the country. The team that we have put together willallow him to get back to being a true point guard. Last year he had to score which forced him to do a lot of things thathe really didn't want to do. This year he can go back to averaging six or seven assists per game and 12 to 14 points pergame. With the personnel we have, he will be able to play point guard almost exclusively. In a perfect world, he cangive us 35 minutes a game. That will be a lot better for this basketball team. There is no question he is the strength ofour team, especially early in the season when everyone is getting to know each other." Straight earned Second TeamAll-Mountain West Conference honors last season. He was No. 3 in scoring in conference games (17.6 ppg). He isranked No. 6 in Wyoming career assists with 305. He was the only player in conference play to rank in the top fivein the MWC in points, assists and steals.
"Jay's backup will be a freshman, Abdullah Lawal. He is a young guy we signed late, a very strong, physicalfreshman. He pushes Jay every day in practice. I don't think Jay will go against a stronger defender all season thanAbdullah. Hopefully he will develop, and be able to be the guy to come off the bench and give Jay a minute here, and aminute there, with little dropoff." Abdullah was named First Team All-District and was an Honorable Mention All-Region honoree in Texas. He was named District 9, 5A Defensive Player of the Year. "The other guy I can envisionplaying the point at times is James Ebert, a junior college transfer. His true position is the two, but he's shown enoughin individual workouts to lead me to believe if we need to, we can also play him at the point.
We've got a solid situation here. Our guys who back up Jay will do a great job doing that, and it'll allow Jay toreturn to his natural position, and not have to worry about trying to be the two, and carry the scoring load. It's great forhim to be able to concentrate on being the point."
"Certainly the two and three spots are a combination for us. Both Dion and Steve can play both positions, and willsee time at both. Dion had a great summer. He came back in great shape, and has been shooting the ball well inpreseason workouts. He's got a year under his belt and has a better understanding of what this level is all about. I stillthink if he hadn't had that six-week period last year where he was injured (sprained foot and ankle), he would havebeen much more effective for us. He was coming off three really good games, and then had to sit out six weeks. It sethis development back. I expect him to have a big year for us. We need him to become a catch and shoot guy. That'swhat he's good at, and that's what we're going to try to establish early in practice. When he's open from three, wewant him to shoot it, and not spend time putting it on the floor. When he's wide open we want him to knock downthe shot. That's what we need from him. I think he is a lot better defender than he was a year ago. I think heunderstands he's got to do it on both ends, and I think he will do that." Sherrell ranked second on the team in threepointshooting a year ago. He started eight of 23 games during his first year, including five of the last six games ofthe season.
"James Ebert also will play at the two. He has shown us in preseason workouts that he can shoot it from three, andyet go to the rim. He is more athletic than he might appear. He's also a guy who's got to be a catch and shoot guy.When people are going to back off of him, he's got to knock down wide open threes for us." Ebert was named aSecond Team National Junior College Athletic Association All-American in Division II. He was named the Region 11Most Valuable Player. His Kirkwood (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) CC team concluded the regular-season ranked No. 8 in thecountry.
"I think Steve Leven will play both the two and the three. He has been here a year, and has practiced every daywith us. It's going to take him some games to shake off the rust. I think Steve gives us another perimeter player whocan get to the rim, and finish, but who can also knock down the three. The biggest adjustment for him will be on thedefensive end. He will have to work on guarding people who are bigger than him at the three spot, or guard someonequicker than him at the two spot. But there's no question athletically he can be one of our best defenders. I think hewill bring emotion to the court, because he can make athletic plays. We haven't had anyone for a couple of years whocould do that." Leven transferred from the University of Texas. He began his collegiate career at Auburn. He wasselected to the All-Australia 16 and Under team, and the All-Australia 18 and Under Team. The native of New SouthWales, Australia, played his prep ball at Laurinburg, N.C.
"Josh is a young player we love having in the program. He has been hampered by sore knees, but nobody worksharder, or loves being a Cowboy more than Josh. He has been especially valuable to us during practice. He is verydedicated to the game of basketball." Dees lettered in both basketball and golf at Toombs County High School(Vidalia, Ga.). He helped lead Toombs County to a 23-4 record his senior season on the way to All-Region honors.He was the salutatorian of his senior class.
"This is the deepest we've been at these two spots since I've been here. We have a lot of flexibility at each. Whenwe want to go big, we can have both Steve and Kevin on the court at the same time. I think that's the good thingabout the two and three spots, we've got a lot of competition, and it's going to force guys to be great on the defensiveend, and not have the mindset that they will play just because of the offensive end. I think that's what is going to makethis group continue to improve all year. We are going to base playing time on who does the job at the defensive end.
Kevin Lewis, who is lefthanded, is a guy who adds size and length to our perimeter. In junior college he knockeddown every big shot he had to knock down. He can shoot it from three, but he also can get to the rim. He'll have tomake the adjustment to how physical it is at this level. But once he does that, he's going to be a hard player to matchup with, because he can post you, or he can take you outside and knock down the three. His biggest adjustment willbe defending on the perimeter against smaller, quicker three-men. He's going to have to learn how to do that. Froman offensive point of view, he runs, and he can finish at the rim. He's different than any three player we have hadbecause he is 6-6 guy on the perimeter. He's so long. He'll be a hard man to match up for people because he can goinside or out. The quicker he makes the adjustment on the defensive end, the quicker he will play." Lewis ledCompton (Calif.) Community College to the 2004 California State Junior College Championship. He was named thetournament's MVP. He averaged 15 points and 6 rebounds per game as a sophomore.
"Jerry Webb showed signs last year he could help us. He's battled sickness this preseason which has held him backa little bit. He is capable of being effective at both ends of the floor. I'm hoping that once he really gets back in shape,and gets his strength back, he's going to be part of a group that's very deep, and he can push people for playing time."Webb played a key role in Wyoming's 79-71 home win over San Diego State last January. He came off the bench inthe first half, and scored 10 points in four minutes, finishing with a career high 13 points. He played in 21 of Wyoming's 28games last season.
"Part of the reason why I think we can get back to playing the way we want to play (up-tempo) is because our perimeter is backto being bigger and more athletic. It's hard to be a good defensive team when your perimeter is always small. There will be times thisyear when we will be small because an opponent will require that. But the nice part is when we play teams with big perimeter players,they won't be able to take advantage of us on the offensive end like they could a year ago. Because of that we'll be a betterrebounding team which will allow us to run more. We are going to be a better defensive team on the perimeter and inside which willalso allow us to play faster."
"There's no doubt we will be more athletic than we have been, at both our four and five spots. We also have some parts thatcan be interchanged. But we will be inexperienced. We really like the attitudes of these guys, and the way they play. But they arelearning, and the typical adjustments will have to be made before they can make important or significant contributions.
I always hesitate to make comparisons, but Justin Williams is a player very similar to Theo Ratliff when he came to Wyoming. He isa very raw, talented player. On the defensive end he will make an immediate impact because he blocks shots. He's so long that hecan get from the backside to block a shot. He definitely makes an impact at the defensive end. Offensively, he's come a long waysince he arrived here. We've got to get him to understand that there's two or three ways he can score, and he must work to becomeefficient with those two or three ways. He should be an effective offensive and defensive rebounder because of his length. He iscapable of outrunning some guys down the floor because he is a very quick athlete." Heading into his sophomore season at Colby(Kans.) Community College, Williams was ranked as the third-best junior college center in the country. He played his high schoolbasketball at Thornwood High School in the Chicago suburb of South Holland, Ill. While in high school, he played against currentCowboy Jay Straight, also a native of Chicago.
"Chris was a very pleasant surprise in preseason workouts. He has great athleticism, and can run the floor very well. Like Justin,he is raw. He is still learning the game, and as he learns how to score, and from where to score, he can really be a factor for us. Hehas a great deal of athletic ability. We believe he can be a four-man who can knock down shots from the perimeter. We also thinkhe can be a great offensive rebounder because of that athleticism, and his ability to jump over people. He should be a very gooddefender." Anderson averaged over 14 points and nine rebounds at the College of Eastern Utah. He was an outstanding highschool performer at Layton (Utah) High School. He has three years of eligibility remaining.
"Benny (Bienvenu) is another guy who has shown tremendous improvement since he arrived on campus. He is a very skilled bigman. His biggest weakness, however, is his lack of strength. As he becomes stronger, his game will get better and better. Right nowhe can be a good defender, and he can block some shots. But in order for him to be an outstanding rebounder, and to take thephysical punishment at the offensive end, he must become stronger. He has probably come further from day one until now thananyone else on the team. As he continues to develop that strength, he's going to push for minutes." A native of the Central AfricaRepublic, Songondo played his high school basketball at Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute. He was injured most of his senior season.
"The great thing about our big guys is that they can all play the four or the five. We seem to have outstanding depth up front,and that's what I really like about this team. I think these guys can be good defenders, and good rebounders which will allow us toplay quicker."
"Alex started to come on at the end of last year, and played well enough inconference play to be named honorable mention all conference. That demonstrates thestrides he made because there were a lot of good, big men in this league a year ago.I've never seen him work harder than he did over the summer. He has his body in greatshape, and I think he has set himself up to have a great senior year. He has got to be aguy who averages a double-double for us. He must be a force on the defensive boards,and a guy who we can count on scoring on the low block when we get himopportunities. To some degree he's got to be a more selfish player when he does get iton the low block. He just has to make up his mind that he's going to score. I think herealizes this is his opportunity to show people what he can really do, and I think he'sprepared himself for that." Dunn scored in double figures in 10 of 27 games lastseason. Six times he scored in double figures in Mountain West play. He was fifth inthe MWC in field-goal percentage (.555), and ninth in rebounding (5.6 rpg) Herecorded the first 20-point game of his career on Dec. 17 of 2003 against TennesseeState.
"Derek is another junior college player who spent all summer here, and added 20pounds. In workouts he appears to be more explosive than I even thought he could be.I think he can be a great defender. He can play a four-man who's quick on theperimeter, and be able to defend that guy. Yet, he can be physical enough to guard abig five. He has the ability to stretch the defense. He can shoot it out to three, andalso put the ball on the floor. Like all new players, he's going to have to make theadjustments at the defensive end in terms of how physical it is. He will have to adapt.We want him to average seven-to-eight rebounds a game." Wabbington came toWyoming from Northeastern (Sterling, Colo.) Junior College. He played his highschool ball at Washington in Phoenix, Ariz.
"Jarrod is a guy who has had problems with injuries since his arrival here. Becauseof that, we have never gotten a real good feel for what he can do. He is a big body,who runs the floor well. He is undergoing more surgery on his knee, and we areexpecting him back sometime in January. We are not sure how much he will be able tohelp us the remainder of this season." During his senior season of high school,Boswell led East San Diego County in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, whilebeing named Player of the Year.
"Because of the depth we have, I think we can be as aggressive defensively in thepost as we've ever been because I really don't think we're gong to have to worry aboutfouls because we've got four or five guys who can all play and be productive. That's alot of fouls to give. I think that's why the defensive end is going to be so importantbecause all of them can score. Playing time will boil down to who can get stops on thedefensive end."