UW freshman Kael Combs utilizing the experience around him

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Jan. 27—LARAMIE — Kael Combs has had the luxury of being mentored by one of the most productive backcourts in the Mountain West during his first college season.

Combs, a true freshman for the University of Wyoming's men's basketball team, was one of three guards to join the Cowboys out of high school in this year's recruiting class. The Nixa, Missouri, product has made the most of his time on campus so far by going up against experienced guards like Sam Griffin and Akuel Kot every day in practice.

Griffin is coming off his first MW player of the week award and is third in the conference in scoring at 18.4 points per game. Kot is right behind him at No. 12 with 15.1 points per game.

Both Griffin and Kot have four years of college experience under their belts, transferring to UW this summer with one year of eligibility remaining. Combs has also leaned on the experience of guard Brendan Wenzel, who played in the NCAA Tournament with the Cowboys two seasons ago.

"They've been super helpful," Combs said about the trio of experienced guards. "They've been like big brothers. They teach me every day, and they're always on me, telling me to talk in practice and communicate, and telling me where to be in the right spots.

"Sam's been super helpful at that point guard position. They've all been super, super helpful and super, super supportive by telling me I've been getting better every day. That's the biggest part about it."

Combs has seen an uptick in minutes after fellow guard Kobe Newton missed the past two games with an undisclosed illness. UW coach Jeff Linder said Newton was discharged from the hospital this week, but his status moving forward is uncertain.

"As of right now, I'm not sure if he'll be back this season," Linder said during Thursday's news conference. "It's kind of a tough deal."

Newton was averaging 5.4 points and 2.2 rebounds in 22.4 minutes per game, and his absence has opened up an opportunity for Combs to see more time on the floor. In last weekend's upset win over Nevada, Combs saw 12 minutes of action, scoring five points while grabbing four rebounds.

"Kael gave us some really good minutes," Linder said after the Nevada game. "... I told him before (the game), 'Hey man, you don't need to be playing scared anymore. We need you to go out and play.'

"Obviously, with Kobe being out for an extended period of time, we're going to need for Kael and Jacob (Theodosiou) and those guys coming off the bench to be ready to go."

Combs, listed at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, set career-highs in both points (eight) and minutes (35) during a Dec. 5 win over South Dakota Mines. He's eclipsed double-digit minutes four times this season, and Linder expects that trend to continue during Newton's absence.

"I feel good about it," Combs said. "Not a lot of freshmen get to play, so, any time I get in the game, it's definitely an opportunity. I just try to make the most of it.

"My role this year is just to be a winning player. Stuff like going to get the defensive boards and guarding (the other team's) best player. It's just a role that I need to do to help us win some games, so, I'm all for it."

Against the Wolf Pack, Combs spent more than a few defensive possessions guarding Kenan Blackshear. The experience of going one-on-one with a second-team All-MW guard from a season ago went a long way toward building Combs' confidence on the floor.

"It definitely helps a lot, especially going into next year with getting that experience," Combs said. "Going up against a guy of (Blackshear's) caliber, I think that's one of the best guards in the Mountain West. That was definitely good experience of getting to guard him, because he's also an older guy, and he does some smart things to get you on his hip to get by you or get you into foul trouble."

Combs isn't the only true freshman seeing significant playing time on UW's roster. Forward Cam Manyawu is averaging 7.1 points and 5.8 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per game so far this season.

Combs picked up two crucial rebounds in the final five minutes against Nevada last weekend, helping the Cowboys hold off the Wolf Pack to remain unbeaten at home in MW play.

"Any meaningful minutes that you can get matter," Linder said. "For him to be in there in crunch time, I think that's only going to help him moving forward. The one thing about Kael — and it's a lot like Cam — he's just got a really good knack for the ball.

"He's got good basketball instincts, and he's a guy that went in there and got two offensive rebounds just for kind of having a nose for the ball."

UW (10-9 overall, 3-3 MW) hosts No. 24-ranked Colorado State (15-4, 3-3) at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Arena-Auditorium in another big conference matchup.

Now, in the heart of the conference season, in one of the best leagues in the country, Combs wants to continue to embrace his role coming off the bench for the Cowboys.

"The Mountain West is good, No. 1-11," Combs said. "Getting this experience as a true freshman is only going to help me going forward, and also help this team and help out this program.

"It's really important that (Cam and I) get this experience and this opportunity to play as true freshmen, because it's only going to help us get better with that experience under our belt."

UW was picked 10th out of 11 teams in this year's MW preseason poll, and Combs would like nothing more than to prove everybody wrong at this year's conference tournament in Las Vegas.

"We want to defend our home court and go undefeated on our home court," Combs said. "We want to try and get a few wins on the road, because we haven't got one yet (in conference play).

"Ultimately, we want to get to the (MW) tournament and win that conference tournament to get a spot in March Madness."

For now, Combs' focus shifts to playing in his first Border War.

"I'm super excited," Combs said. "I've heard a lot about it. I've only heard good things, and it's a really good rivalry. I heard it's going to be pretty good atmosphere, and it's going to be packed in the A-A. It's going to be pretty cool to be able to experience it."

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