Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 | 2 a.m.
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- Perimeter defense could be key against very tough Colorado State squad
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- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
The most surprisingly intriguing team of the 2012-13 college basketball season is in Laramie, Wyo., and it’s not even close. After all, what other team came out of nowhere to be undefeated until Jan. 9, lost one of its best players because of a bar fight and held the No. 15 team in the country to nine points in a half?
Not everything Wyoming (15-2, 2-2) does is good, as the off-court incident indicates, but the Cowboys are worth paying attention to, which hasn’t always been the case. Most of that credit goes to second-year coach Larry Shyatt, a man with a history as interesting as his team’s. Las Vegas can see both the man and his Cowboys at 6:15 p.m. Thursday night when UNLV (15-4, 2-2) hosts Wyoming on CBS Sports Network.
A longtime assistant, Shyatt was previously the coach at Wyoming for one season (1997-98) before leaving for Clemson. In five years he couldn’t get the Tigers out of the ACC basement and moved on to be an assistant at Florida, where he helped coach Billy Donovan win back-to-back national titles.
Shyatt got another chance to be the head coach in Laramie, taking over after current UNLV assistant Heath Schroyer was fired in his fourth season. Now in his second year, Shyatt has improved Wyoming’s numbers and results across the board. And he’s done it despite losing several key seniors, including Francisco Cruz, Adam Waddell and JayDee Luster, off last year’s team.
“How dependent they were upon their senior class and they’ve bounced back; they’re 15-2 and they’ve lost one of their better players in Martinez,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “It’s a credit to their team for how well they play together.”
Martinez is a fifth-year senior — he played two years at a junior college — and it’s likely he’s played his last collegiate basketball game.
On Dec. 31, news broke that Martinez would miss time with a broken hand. It was later reported that Martinez broke that hand in a bar fight, though no charges were filed against him at the time. Eventually Shyatt announced Martinez, who was the team’s second-leading scorer at the time of his injury, would be suspended indefinitely after criminal charges were filed against him.
The police details allege that after a Cowboys teammate, Derek Cooke Jr., knocked the victim to the ground, Martinez got a running start and “booted his face like it was a football,” according to a witness. What that means for Martinez, well, isn’t good.
What that means for the team he left behind is a lot more defensive focus on inside players Leonard Washington and Larry Nance, Jr. Washington is a second-team all-Mountain West pick from last year who started his career at USC. He spent most of the offseason suspended for a violation of team rules, including missing the team’s exhibition trip to Canada (the Cowboys didn’t play any of the same opponents as UNLV did on its trip). Washington was reinstated in September.
“Leonard Washington is one of the best facilitators in our league,” Rice said. “He’s a hard cover because of his versatility.”
Nance is the son of a former three-time NBA All-Star. Together Nance and Washington average 25 points and 16.6 rebounds with efficient shooting, at least when they stay inside the arc. Nance is OK from 3 but Washington is 9-for-45.
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Washington may take so many 3s in hopes of loosening the interior defense, where things have gotten more crowded without Martinez’s outside shot.
“They’re going to have to rely on one dribble at the most because guys are always running at them,” Shyatt said. “That’s sort of been the situation since we lost one of our better shooters.”
The Rebels can relate. Freshman Anthony Bennett is learning how tough Mountain West defenses can be, and Washington is the man next in line to administer the newest lesson.
“There’s no doubt that will be a key matchup in the game,” Rice said.
Wyoming could come into the Thomas & Mack Center and fall flat on its face. Or the Cowboys could string something together and keep up the Rebels’ streak of exciting Mountain West games.
Either way, Wyoming is worth watching, and that’s not something that could always be said.