Alex Taylor: Taylor Cowboys could surprise the Mountain West

Oct. 28—LARAMIE — The rest of the Mountain West isn't expecting much from this year's University of Wyoming men's basketball team.

The Cowboys were picked 10th out of 11 teams in the MW preseason poll, but not without reason. UW finished last in the conference standings a season ago, stumbling out to a 9-22 overall record and a 4-14 mark in MW play.

UW returns just one starter and four letterwinners total, and one of those letterwinners, guard Kenny Foster, tore his Achilles tendon during the preseason and will miss the entire year.

If Jeff Linder has learned anything through his first three seasons as UW's head coach, it's that preseason expectations don't mean a thing in the final standings. The Cowboys were tied with New Mexico in eighth place in the 2021-22 MW preseason poll, and won 25 games to clinch their first spot in the NCAA Tournament since 2015.

One year later, UW was picked second in the poll before finishing last in the league.

"For this group, those things don't matter," Linder said in August about preseason hype. "It's just a matter of knowing, for these guys, knowing that we're not talented enough to where we can just show up and win, and understanding that we have to win every day, and we have to put forth the maximum amount of effort to where, as the season goes on, we continue to get better and be as good as we can be at the end.

"Preseason predictions are whatever; I don't buy into those too much. It is a nice, friendly reminder to them that, 'Hey, this is what people think; we have to prove people wrong.'"

As UW's lone returning starter, senior guard Brendan Wenzel knows this year's group will have a large chip on its shoulder. That mindset could be the key in surpassing the Cowboys' low expectations this winter.

"It just comes down to selflessness," Wenzel said. "I'm not going to be selfish. These new guys didn't have the year that I had last year and the year me, Cort (Roberson), Caden (Powell) and Kenny had last year. I'm not going to bring that into this year.

"Of course, that's a chip on my shoulder because of last year, but I'm going to focus on this year. I'm not going to dwell on the past. I'm going to focus on getting better with this new group of guys every day, and I think we've been doing that, so I think we have a chance of being really, really good."

Forward Mason Walters transferred to UW from the University of Jamestown after being named the NAIA player of the year last season. While he'll miss at least the nonconference portion of the season with a thumb injury he suffered during the preseason, Walters is excited to see this year's Cowboys take advantage of the underdog mentality.

"I like the attitude that we have of kind of knowing that we're the underdog and we're kind of looked down upon, so to speak," Walters said. "I think that we have an opportunity to kind of prove some people wrong. If we can find a way to play with that edge and come out every night and compete, I think we'll have a great year and be successful."

UW will play a challenging nonconference slate, highlighted by road matchups with Texas and Brigham Young. It won't get any easier in conference play, with the MW shaping up to potentially be a four-bid league for the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season.

San Diego State is the preseason favorite after making a run to the NCAA Tournament title game in March. Utah State, Nevada and Boise State also represented the conference in the Big Dance, which has helped Linder and the rest of the league recruit quality players to their respective programs.

"When you have opportunity to come play at the highest level of college basketball, from an NCAA Net (Rankings) standpoint, I think we've been fourth or fifth in the country the past two years," Linder said in August. "To get multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament, those are the things that really separate you when you're recruiting against a program that's in a one-bid league where, regardless of how good you are in the regular season, it doesn't matter.

"Your whole season just comes down to three games in March. Where, in our league, every game matters. The level that the Mountain West has reached over the last couple years, it's made a big difference in recruiting."

Wenzel and Foster are the lone carryovers from UW's NCAA Tournament team two seasons ago. The experience has helped Wenzel prepare for a bigger leadership role this season, which is something he's been embracing since the program's 10 newcomers arrived on campus this offseason.

While he doesn't brag about his presence on the March Madness team to his teammates, Wenzel has been a valuable resource for them because he knows the process of making a postseason run.

"I feel like they know," Wenzel said. "I do make mistakes in practice sometimes, but I don't make very many, just because I am experienced, and I know what it does take to win. But I don't gloat about it or say, 'I know what I'm doing, because I was in the tournament.'

"I think they know, and I think that they know that I have the experience, and they know that I've been there and know what it takes to get there."

The Cowboys will start the regular season against Northern New Mexico College at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7 in the Arena Auditorium.

Alex Taylor is the assistant editor for WyoSports and covers University of Wyoming athletics. He can be reached at Follow him on X at @alex_m_taylor22.