LARAMIE (AP) — Larry Shyatt admits his University of Wyoming men’s basketball team frustrated and disappointed fans this season.
And to him, that is a compliment.
Shyatt’s third season (he was the coach during the 1997-98 season) and second since returning to UW nearly two years ago to the day, ended Monday with a 75-67 overtime loss at home to Western Michigan in the quarterfinals of the College Basketball Invitational.
The Cowboys finished 20-14, and recorded consecutive 20-win seasons and postseason appearances for the first time in a decade.
UW started the season 13-0 and was ranked in the top 25 for one week for the first time since 1991.
But it lost 14 of its final 21 games.
The main reason: The loss of guard Luke Martinez, one of three seniors, due to suspension after he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and battery in January after a fight outside a Laramie bar in late December. Martinez averaged 14.5 points and 2.1 steals per game before his suspension.
Injuries and illness to other players during Mountain West play also took their toll.
The Cowboys’ best player — senior forward Leonard Washington — suffered ankle and back injuries in February. He missed two games, played in 10 or fewer minutes in two others and was a shell of himself in the games he did play. Still, Washington led the Cowboys in scoring (12.5 ppg), rebounding (8.2 rpg) and blocked shots (1.7 bpg), and tied for the most steals (42). He was a Third Team All-Mountain West pick and also was on the league’s all-defensive team.
Only one player started in all 34 games — senior point guard Derrious Gilmore. Sophomore forward Derek Cooke Jr., who was in his first season at UW and never played high school basketball, and true freshman guard Josh Adams were the only others who played in every game. Injuries, illness and other forms of adversity are part of basketball and other sports. Shyatt knows that, having been a college coach for 40 years. He doesn’t use them as excuses, nor did his players. But for a team whose margin of error was razor thin to begin with, it was simply too much for it to overcome to even begin to try to match its best start in 62 years.
“Maybe the most significant thing is we frustrated people, and what a compliment that is from where we were,” Shyatt tells the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “We also frustrated ourselves, yet in all my years of coaching, I am not sure I have been with a group that faced more adversity in a tougher league.
“We got to 13-0 from a team we built back in June. We probably were not as good as advertised, but certainly better than a lot of people gave us credit for.
Disappointment hit, yet our guys hung on. They didn’t try to pretend to be who they were not. I was impressed with that because there are a lot of imposters out there.
“Are we happy? No. Are we satisfied where we are? No. Do we appreciate where we were and where we are now? Yes.”
Where the program was prior to Shyatt’s hiring was one that won 10 games in each of the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. Go back even farther, and it had had only three winning seasons and one postseason appearance since 2002-03.
There was player attrition when Shyatt was hired, which is common, but it put the program’s academic standing in a mess. Since then, Shyatt said, UW has achieved team-records with a 3.7 cumulative GPA last summer and a 2.8 GPA last fall.
And the nine seniors who have come through since Shyatt came back either will graduate or are on target to.
UW built this season’s team around three players who, as Shyatt describes, played high-volume minutes: Martinez, Washington and sophomore forward Larry Nance Jr.
Although none will be seniors next season, UW has three returning starters who played high-volume minutes in Nance, true freshman guard Josh Adams and sophomore guard Riley Grabau.
Nance will be UW’s leading returner in scoring (10.7 ppg), rebounding (6.9 rpg), steals (1.2 spg) and blocked shots (24). He showed great improvement from his true freshman season, where he averaged 4.1 points and four rebounds per contest.
Adams began the season coming off the bench, but became a starter after Martinez was suspended. He often defended the opposition’s best guard and showed glimpses of his athleticism. He averaged 6.6 points per game and had 53 assists and 43 turnovers.
Grabau went from 7.2 minutes in 21 games last season to 30.8 in 32 games this season.
He averaged six points per game, but more impressively, he had the team’s best assist-to-turnover ratio with 79 assists and 37 turnovers.
Cooke and junior guard Nathan Sobey both averaged around 13 minutes per game in their first seasons, and five other unproven players return — including two walk-ons — who will be either sophomores or juniors.
“From the beginning of the year, we had guys step up in absence of others,” Nance said. “We will be ready next season.”
How that team looks or plays remains to be seen.
Shyatt expects all returning players to be back next season, which leaves him with one scholarship to offer in the spring signing period.
UW signed three high school recruits in the early signing period last fall:
— Forward Keonta Vernon (6-6, 215) from Union High in Tulare, Calif.
— Forward Alan Herndon (6-8, 175) from Widefield High in Colorado Springs, Colo. He is the fifth Colorado prep product signed by Shyatt the last two years.
— Guard Trey Washington (5-11, 170) from Woodrow Wilson High in Dallas.
Another intriguing newcomer is junior guard Charles Hankerson Jr. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Hankerson sat out this season per NCAA rules after transferring from Alabama.
Hankerson gives UW more size and girth along the guard line, but it is uncertain what his role will be next season.