The ball sails freely in that cold, thin air of Laramie, Wyoming.
And as the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team looks to snap its five-game conference losing streak on Saturday in Arena-Auditorium – the self-proclaimed “Highest Court in the Land” (at 7,220 feet) – the long ball could be a key factor, even if not necessarily by choice of either head coach.
For Wyoming, the team picked in the preseason media poll tied with UNM in the 8th/9th spots of the 11-team poll, the breakthrough season that includes a stellar 14-2 record and 3-0 start in league play has come in no small part due to the emergence of 6-foot-9 post star Graham Ike.
Through 15 games, he’s averaging 20 points and 8.5 rebounds, and his domination inside has changed in some ways what many people expected to be the style head coach Jeff Linder would bring to the program.
During Linder’s five previous seasons as a head coach (four at Northern Colorado and one at Wyoming), his teams regularly got 40% or more of their points from beyond the 3-point line when the national average usually hovers around 31%.
Wyoming this season is down to 32.6% of its points from deep, but that’s with Ike.
The big man from Aurora, Colorado, missed Wednesday’s game with a knee injury. His status for Saturday’s game is unclear, though the injury is not expected to be long term.
Without him in the post against San Jose State, Wyoming tied a season-high by hitting 13 3-pointers.
“When you get paint touches, usually good things happen,” said senior Hunter Maldonado, who at 6-foot-7 plays both point guard and was the primary post-up threat on Wednesday.
“With (Ike) not in there, we are a little more 3-point oriented … (We play) more five-out instead of one (big man) in at all times.”
As has been well-documented, the Lobos (7-11, 0-5 Mountain West) are still trying to figure out how best to make an offense work without an offensive threat in the post to speak of as three centers they counted on entering the season are no longer playing.
A live-by-the-3, die-by-the-3 mindset is not at all what coach Richard Pitino wants, but it seems to be close to what the Lobos have done lately.
“It’s not as easy to score,” Pitino said about conference play. “We can’t just be – obviously we’re making more 3s, which is great, but we’ve got to get to the rim more.”
UNM has made double-digit 3-pointers in a game five times this season, including three of the past four games after a nine-game stretch without doing it at all – when the offense was geared toward the benefits of an offensive threat in the post.
Wednesday, the Lobos’ upset bid as 16-point underdogs at Colorado State (they lost 80-74) was helped tremendously by making 14 3-pointers, those coming from six players.
But relying on that each game is not what Pitino is hoping for.
It just might be all they can do right now.
FATIGUE FACTOR? While Wyoming often has spoken of the need to use Laramie’s elevation to its advantage, the Cowboys might be playing on some tired legs right now.
After a 21-day pause due to COVID cases on the roster, Linder said the team’s first full practice in that span was Jan. 14, the day before playing at Utah State.
Wyoming won in Logan, Utah, and then beat Nevada on the road two days later in Reno. They beat San Jose State two days after that, and Saturday’s game against the Lobos is game No. 4 in eight days after a 21-day pause.
Linder said the team also played with only eight scholarship players available against SJSU, but didn’t say how many may be available against the Lobos.
Ike (knee) is the key, but the Cowboys are also without point guard Xavier DuSell (hamstring) and reserve Kenny Foster (ankle).
CLOSE TIES: Maldonado, Wyoming’s do-everything senior leader, is from Colorado Springs and is close with Lobo sophomore Javonte Johnson.
Johnson, also from Colorado Springs, has played well this season when back on the Front Range. He had 10 points at Colorado on Nov. 13 and 18, including hitting four 3s, in Wednesday’s loss at Colorado State.