January will make or break Wyoming basketball

2014-07-31T22:00:00Z 2014-08-01T17:57:03Z January will make or break Wyoming basketballBy MIKE VOREL Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
July 31, 2014 10:00 pm  • 

A new year brings a fresh set of challenges.

On Thursday, Wyoming released its 2014-15 men's basketball schedule, a slate that includes 19 home games, three road non-conference games, at least 10 national television broadcasts and one exciting, terrifying, season-defining month.

In January, the Cowboys will ascend, or be broken.

Actually, the carnival of terrors technically kicks off on Dec. 31, when Wyoming hosts UNLV -- the team that booted the Cowboys out of last March's Mountain West Tournament -- to kick off its conference schedule. And for the 30 days that follow, the land mines are placed in the following order:

Sat., Jan. 3 | at San Jose State

Wed., Jan. 7 | at Colorado State

Sat., Jan. 10 | Boise State

Wed., Jan. 14 | San Diego State

Sat., Jan. 17 | at Fresno State

Sat., Jan. 24 | New Mexico

Wed., Jan. 28 | at Utah State

Sat., Jan. 31 | Nevada

The stretch starts, unlike most meals, with dessert. Because if you watched San Jose State at all last season, you know that the Spartans are a glorified cupcake. But San Jose State is the outlier, rather than the rule.

In all, Wyoming hosts UNLV, Boise State, San Diego State, New Mexico and Nevada -- remarkably, the exact five teams that finished ahead of the Cowboys in the Mountain West last season -- all in a one-month span.

This would be an acceptable coincidence in any other month, when the revamped Arena-Auditorium would rock with the eardrum-pounding, error-inducing, score-boosting frivolity provided by the most irreplaceable element of Wyoming's home court advantage -- its student section.

However, this is where things get dicey: Wyoming's student body will be home for winter vacation during four of those five home games.

The students do not return to classes until January 26, meaning that games against UNLV (Dec. 31), Boise State (Jan. 10), San Diego State (Jan. 14) and New Mexico (Jan. 24) all could lack a certain crucial oomph.

A year ago, the students were the ones who booed Nevada's Deonte Burton with a relentless, joyous, almost-manic fervor every time he even thought about touching the basketball in a 64-62 overtime victory.

They provided the voices that so thoroughly rattled New Mexico freshman guard Cullen Neal that he turned to the student section and blew the fans a kiss.

The referee returned the favor by blowing Neal for a technical foul.

They're the group -- clad unanimously in white -- that stormed the court, a mass of spontaneous euphoria, when the Cowboys upset No. 5 San Diego State 68-62 on Feb. 11.

Next January, during the team's most challenging stretch of its season, that section could be more sparsely populated than the state. Some will come, sure, but it will more closely resemble diet soda.

Does it taste like the real thing? Sort of. But it lacks a definite bite.

But in a year in which four UW starters return, including Mountain West Player of the Year hopeful Larry Nance Jr., there are no excuses.

The fans aren't quite as loud? Win anyway. If the Cowboys want to contend -- really, truly contend with the best in the Mountain West Conference -- they have to take care of business at home, regardless of the number of fans in the stands or the five players standing across from them.

January will be a test of will, one with the potential to propel or cripple. Including the UNLV game on New Year's Eve, Wyoming went 8-9 against the teams it will see in the first month of 2015.

By the end of it, Larry Shyatt's team will either be galloping towards the Mountain West Tournament, or crawling away from a fiery wreck.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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