Three-Point Play: Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys

After missing the latter part of last season, Larry Nance Jr. is making up for lost time and helping the Cowboys towards their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2002. (Tony Babbitt/USA Today)
After missing the latter part of last season with a knee injury, Larry Nance Jr. is making up for lost time and helping to lead the Cowboys towards their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2002. (Tony Babbitt/USA Today)

1. Bronco Busters

It’s the place which first gave women the right to vote in America, as well as home to historic Yellowstone National Park. It’s also the place where the popular shopping mall chain J.C. Penney started. But very soon, the state of Wyoming may also be known as the home of one of the best college basketball teams out West. And all of that means we can mention the name Fennis Dembo, and that’s always a good thing.

With a suffocating defense and a legitimate NBA prospect (who happens to the the son of a former NBA All-Star), the University of Wyoming men’s basketball team has announced itself onto the national stage. Their 4-0 start to conference play in the Mountain West has included wins against a UNLV team that had just come off of upsetting then-No. 3 Arizona, and a win against previously nationally-ranked Colorado State at Moby Arena in Fort Collins. Those wins have helped to earn the Cowboys their first national ranking in the Associated Press poll since March 15, 1988, when former Detroit Piston Fennis Dembo was completing his standout collegiate career before playing his one and only season in the NBA.

Dembo’s only NBA season, 1988-89, saw then-Cleveland Cavaliers forward Larry Nance make the second of his three NBA All-Star Game appearances. Nance’s son, Larry Nance Jr., is the headliner on the court at Wyoming this season, with the senior currently leading the Cowboys in scoring (15.8), rebounding (6.7) and total blocks (21). Nance’s 2014 season was cut short due to a knee injury, and it occurred when the Cowboys – 17-9 and 8-5 in conference play at the time he was ruled out for the season – were legitimately harboring NCAA Tournament aspirations. Nance is one of four seniors in the starting lineup, making up one of the most senior-laden and experienced starting lineups in the country.

With experience comes toughness, and with the way the Cowboys have played on the defensive end so far this season, there may be no team more hard-nosed. Wyoming allows only 52.2 points per game, which ranks first in the Mountain West and third in all of Division-1. Only four times this season have the Cowboys allowed more than 61 points, with their best defensive effort of the season coming on Nov. 22 against 2014 NCAA Tournament team Colorado, who only put 33 on the board in a 23-point loss to the Pokes.

This has been a long time coming for basketball fans in the Equality State, who haven’t seen their Cowboys make an NCAA Tournament appearance since it upset Gonzaga in the first round as an 11-seed in 2002. A big game looms on Wednesday when perennial Mountain West power San Diego State comes to Laramie. How big of a game is it? Bob Knight is scheduled to be there, working the game as the color commentator on ESPN.

Could the state of Wyoming become a basketball hotbed before too long? OK, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Just a little.

2. Almost Heroes

The Syracuse women’s basketball team is now on its 10th consecutive week being ranked in the AP Top 25. But, somehow, where they’re ranked (No. 25 this week) could be considered somewhat of a disappointment, given all of its close calls against other Top 25 opponents. Of Syracuse’s five losses this season, all have come against ranked opponents, with three of the defeats coming by a combined eight points.

Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillman led the Orange women to its first ever NCAA Tournament victory last season. (Nick Lisi/AP Photo)
Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman led the Orange women to its first ever NCAA Tournament victory last season. (Nick Lisi/AP Photo)

The stay at the Heartbreak Hotel started in the Bahamas, when the Orange let a 10-point second-half lead slip in a 67-63 defeat over the No. 1 team in the country, South Carolina, on Nov. 28. One month later, in a different warm-weather paradise (Orlando), Syracuse held a four-point lead with three minutes left before eventually being downed 74-72 by No. 9 Baylor on Dec. 19. Last Thursday, to complete the triple play of close calls, the ‘Cuse came back from a 12-point second half deficit at Cameron Indoor Stadium to tie the No. 13 Blue Devils with under a minute left, before two late free throws put the cap on a 74-72 Blue Devils’ victory.

So close, yet….

That’s not to take away from the amazing job that ninth-year head coach Quentin Hillsman has done in the Salt City, leading the Orange to consecutive NCAA Tournaments for the first time in program history the last two seasons. More than likely, it will be a third consecutive season the man they call “Q” will lead Syracuse to the Big Dance. All of this despite Brittney Sykes, Syracuse’s leading scorer from last season, injuring her ACL for the second time in 10 months in the Notre Dame game on Jan. 4 and being ruled out for the rest of the season once more. If anything, Syracuse continues to show that it is one of the more resilient teams in college basketball.

We’re pretty sure that, before the season is over – and before the NCAA Tournament – Syracuse will finally close the deal on one of those games against a ranked opponent.

Umm, we think…

3. That’s Un-American

Quickly, the team that won the national championship in men’s basketball last season is from what conference? Well, if you read the headline, then you’d know that the answer is the American Athletic Conference, where the Connecticut Huskies reside. (I’ll admit that, sometimes, I forget that they’re in the league as well.)

This season, the Huskies, as well as almost every other upper echelon team in the American, has had its ups and downs, which may severely hurt the conference when it comes to Selection Sunday. As of Tuesday, only one team in the conference had an RPI in the Top 30, that being SMU. When looking closer at the Mustangs, however, their best win of the season came against Wyoming, a team that, although improved – as we documented above – is still ranked No. 77 in the RPI.

Three other teams in the league rank between No. 33 and No. 41, with Temple (41) holding the biggest trump card so far – a 25-point home win over then No. 10 Kansas on Dec. 22. However, the Owls just lost to Tulsa (No. 33) last Saturday, a team that sports an impressive RPI, but also has a gigantic eyesore already on its résumé: a loss to Division II Southeast Oklahoma State on Dec. 10. Cincinnati, now without the services of head coach Mick Cronin for the rest of this season, has a win vs. SMU to go along with an ever-improving non-conference win at NC State, but the Bearcats just lost on the road on Saturday to UConn. Meanwhile, the Huskies are mired at 67th in the RPI, though they do have a win in non-conference play against Dayton, and also hope that its road win against fellow 2014 Final Four participant Florida will hold some weight by the time March rolls around. Memphis, an NCAA Tournament team last season, is a shell of its former self, languishing at 9-6 and dealing with internal strife.

All this is to say that there’s no dominant team in the league, which means that there’s no surefire NCAA Tournament team to boot. So how much credit will the committee give a team from the American for beating a couple of teams with similar, shaky-looking résumés from within the same conference?

Interview of the Week: Pat Connaughton

Our interview, from the “ACC Operation Basketball” media day luncheon back in October, is with Notre Dame swingman Pat Connaughton, one of the key figures in Notre Dame’s 15-2 start to the season. Along with talking about how the Irish were to rebound from last season’s disappointing campaign, Connaughton talked about his experience being a pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles organization last summer after being drafted by the club in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. Oh, and I believe he’s, at least for now, given up his Red Sox fandom. Enjoy.

Game(s) of the Week:

Men: No. 3 Gonzaga at Pepperdine, 10:30 PM ET, Thursday: Can you say “upset alert?” Gonzaga has been one of the most impressive outfits this season, with its only loss coming in overtime in Tucson against Arizona on Dec. 6. But they’re going up against one of the better teams in the West Coast Conference in the Waves, with the game promising to be far from life on the beach for the Zags in Malibu. Pepperdine has four players on the roster averaging at least nine points per game, with Stacy Davis being one of the toughest match-up problems for opponents on the West Coast (15.7 points, 7.7 rebounds). Any team that wins in Provo against BYU has proven that it is a mentally tough one, and the Waves did just that last week. Win this game, and the Waves can seriously start thinking about a run at an at-large bid from the WCC. As a matter-of-fact, we’re calling the upset!

Women: No. 8 Maryland at No. 24 Rutgers, 9:00 PM ET, Thursday: Welcome to life in the Big Ten, Terrapins! Maryland’s first two road conference games in its Big Ten history came against then No. 12 Nebraska in Lincoln (win) and against then No. 23 Minnesota in Minneapolis (win). It doesn’t get any easier the third time around, as they visit The RAC to take on a Scarlet Knights team that has righted the ship after consecutive losses to start the New Year to Ohio State and Iowa.

[Cover photo (Nic Moore/SMU) courtesy of Ronald Martinez/Getty Images]

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