They came nine points away from sneaking into the Sweet 16 last March.
Now all the Wyoming Cowboys want is respect.
Eight months after nearly upsetting Arizona in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Cowboys are still unranked despite returning four starters.
“It’s obviously disappointing,” Wyoming head coach Steve McClain said. “When you look at some of the teams we played, I was a little disappointed. But we can’t be worried about that right now.”
Wyoming returns seniors Marcus Bailey and Uche Nsonwu-Amadi, who both received postseason honors from the underrated Mountain West Conference last year.
“We want to get back to where we were,” Nsonwu-Amadi said, “and hopefully get to the (Elite) Eight or Sweet 16.”
Bailey, ranked No. 15 among college shooting guards by The Sporting News, led the team in scoring with 14.6 points per game, while Nsonwu-Amadi averaged a team-leading 8.2 boards.
The two have been as good as advertised in the preseason.
Bailey netted 21, and Nsonwu-Amadi scored 25 points to lead the Cowboys in a 80-79 win against the EA Sports team, boosting Wyoming’s preseason record to 2-0.
“We’re going to look to both of them in (clutch) situations,” McClain said. “(Nsonwu-Amadi) is one of the better centers in the country right now. (Bailey) has established himself as one of my leaders. You can’t look past them.”
No team can look past the Cowboys now, but the same wasn’t true before McClain, a former assistant at Texas Christian, took over in 1998. Wyoming’s 81-77 win against USC in the first round of the 1999 NIT marked Wyoming’s first postseason win since the 1990-91 season.
“(McClain’s) gotten people excited and has done a great job recruiting,” Wyoming athletics director Lee Moon said. “We had 11,000 for an exhibition game the other night. That says where we are.”
McClain followed up an inaugural 18-win campaign with 19 and 20 wins the following two seasons. Recruits started to notice.
Last year, the Cowboys brought in Chicago native Jay Straight, who led the team with 103 assists as a freshman while playing in all 31 games. More recently, Wyoming inked California standouts Mikel Watson (26.6 points per game) and 7-footer Jarrod Boswell.
“We went out and recruited hard,” McClain said. “The assistant coaches did a great job. Any coach will say this, but I’m a better coach with better players.”
That helped the Cowboys ruin nearly everyone’s bracket last March, as they stunned Gonzaga in the first round.
“They were very physical, especially inside,” Gonzaga assistant coach Bill Grier said. “Their big kids did a nice job on both ends of the floor.”
“We went in (the NCAA Tournament) with the idea of wanting to win,” McClain said. “To see the kids so disappointed (after we lost), I knew they wanted more. It gives them something to shoot for this year.”
But the Cowboys will have to earn their way back. That won’t be easy with a schedule that includes a Jan. 15 date at Kansas. The tough schedule should weigh positively when the NCAA Tournament selection committee looks at the Cowboys.
“We’re not going to have the perfect year because we’re playing … tough teams,” McClain said. “But come March, I think the people at the NCAA will take notice.”
Reloading, not rebuilding
No. 1 Arizona keeps getting better. The Wildcats announced Nov. 13 that they signed three prospects, including two of the top four high school players in the country, according to Foxsports.com.
At the top of the list is the country’s No. 2 prospect, 6-foot-8 forward Ndudi Ebi. A senior at Westbury Christian High School in Houston, Ebi averaged 23 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks per game as a junior.
The Wildcats also nabbed 6-foot-3 point guard Mustafa Shakur, of Wynnewood, Pa., who SU coveted at one time, and 6-foot-10 center Kirk Walters, from South Rapids, Mich.
“They will have an immediate impact on our program,” Arizona head coach Lute Olson told the Associated Press.
For the first time in college basketball history, an all-female referee crew officiated a men’s game during the regular season.
Mona Miller, Erica Bradley and Leigh Anne Webb officiated Martin Methodist’s 82-44 trouncing of Atlanta Christian on Nov. 12.
“We didn’t know what we were doing until we did it,” Martin Methodist athletics director Jeff Bain told the AP.
Bain checked with the NAIA and the NCAA and found that the only all-female crew was used in an exhibition game at LSU a few years ago.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal,” NAIA president Steve Baker told the AP. “I think it’s an example of three quality referees who happen to be female.”
This and that
Alabama jumped from No. 8 to No. 4 in the AP Poll on Monday. That marks the highest ranking the Crimson Tide’s had since it occupied the same spot on Feb. 15, 1977. … Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski came back to practice on crutches Monday after straining his right hip flexor muscle in a 102-74 exhibition win over EA Sports last Thursday. The Hall of Fame coach had the same hip replaced last March. … Cal State-Los Angeles named two-time NBA All-Star Reggie Theus a volunteer assistant coach. The 45-year-old played 13 years in the NBA including stints with Chicago, Kansas City-Sacramento, Atlanta, Orlando and New Jersey. Theus also played a high school basketball coach on the NBC show “Hang Time.”
Up and coming
Rashad McCants, North Carolina
The freshman dropped 28 points, setting a school record for the most points by a freshman in UNC’s first game, as the Tar Heels pummeled Penn State, 85-55, in the first round of the Preseason NIT.
“It’s beyond my wildest dreams just to play in this uniform,” McCants told the AP. “Just to be out there and hear the crowd was great.”
This story originally ran in The Daily Orange on Nocember 21, 2002.