After winning two Big Ten Tournament games last weekend, the Indiana men’s basketball team received a No. 12 seed and will play Wyoming in a First Four game in Dayton on Tuesday.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Wyoming Cowboys ahead of Tuesday’s NCAA Tournament game — IU’s first in six years.
AN OLD-SCHOOL APPROACH (KINDA)
Wyoming’s offense reminds me of a late-1990s/early-2000s NBA offense. The Cowboys have a guard and a big man who eat off isolation and post up possessions. That would be 6-foot-7 point guard Hunter Maldonado and center Graham Ike.
Ike is a traditional big man. He backs down with a lot of force (weighing 252 pounds) and finishes inside. While Ike isn’t a shooter, he has a nice touch in the short mid-range. Wyoming draws up an abundance of post ups for Ike every game.
Watch Ike’s post ups again. You’ll see that there are three (sometimes four) Wyoming players standing on the other side of the court, just letting Ike go to work. This is the part that makes the Cowboys’ offense look so old-fashioned. The spacing makes it look like you’re watching the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. There are isolations and there are flat-out clearouts, which is what Wyoming does.
Notice how Ike doesn’t get very high on his finishes. Per basketball statistician Bart Torvik, Ike has only dunked the basketball 11 times this season. Ike is a great post player, but he doesn’t play with the verticality of guys like Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson.
Despite his lack of vertical athleticism, Ike is pretty solid at making quick dribble moves to get in his spot. Ideally, this is still the type of great big man Indiana would prefer to face. Ike isn’t a 7-footer and he isn’t an amazing screener. It won’t be easy for the Hoosiers, but they should have the post defenders to put up a fight.
It’s 2022, and Wyoming has a top-notch scoring point guard. He must be a phenomenal shooter, right? Wrong. Well, he probably has dazzling athleticism that shines on fast breaks, right? Nope.
Hunter Maldonado’s points often come in the same fashion as his 250-pound center. As a point guard, Maldonado uses his 6-foot-7 build to bully smaller guards in the mid-post. Maldonado only shoots 23.8 percent on 3s, so his identity is also to back down in isolation.
Maldonado’s post ups also come with multiple Wyoming teammates being spaced to the other side of the court. That’s just how the Cowboys play. They try to clear out and give Ike and Maldonado as much space as possible to operate.
This may sound crazy, but I’d suggest Mike Woodson at least tries to station Race Thompson on Maldonado to begin the game. Maldonado is four inches taller than IU’s point guard, Xavier Johnson. Thompson has shown the ability to guard perimeter defenders who aren’t too shifty (which Maldonado isn’t), and Thompson might be the best post defender the Hoosiers have.
If it doesn’t work early, Indiana can adjust, but I’d like to see Thompson draw the assignment of containing Maldonado.
While Ike and Maldonado are the best shot creators for the Cowboys, Wyoming’s most efficient player is actually Drake Jeffries. Jeffries takes 6.8 3s per game and 93.7 percent of his field goal attempts are from downtown. Jeffries is shooting 42 percent on these 3s.
When Wyoming initiates post ups and sends three players to the other side of the court, the one player that usually stays on the same side of Ike and Maldonado is Jeffries. The Cowboys do this so that when defenses double from the strong side, they end up leaving Wyoming’s best shooter with a good look.
Wyoming has a couple of other wrinkles to get Jeffries open looks as well. To throw defenses off, Jeffries sets ball screens for Maldonado and then pops for a 3-point shot.
This simple play is so effective because if defenses send too much attention to Maldonado, Jeffries is wide open for the 3. If defenses worry too much about Jeffries, Maldonado has an easier path to get downhill and score.
The Cowboys also have a veer set to get Jeffries going. On these veer plays, Ike sets a screen (or acts like he’s setting a screen) for Maldonado and then sprints to the corner that Jeffries is in to set up an above-the-break look for Jeffries.
This works because the center guarding Ike is usually focused on stopping the ball screen, and he has no idea that Ike is about to set another screen. When Ike freezes Jeffries’ defender on the veer screen, nobody is ready to give a contest on Jeffries’ shot.
In total, 41.8 percent of Wyoming’s shots are 3-pointers. This is well above the national average of 37.7 percent. While Wyoming’s top two players utilize the post, the rest of the squad fires from beyond. The Cowboys only shoot 33 percent on 3s, but they have to take these shots because their best players clog the lane.
Maldonado creates a lot of these perimeter shots with his passing. He uses his scoring gravity to spray the ball out to the team’s shooters.
Maldonado averages 6.3 assists per game, and he has a good understanding of positioning and spacing. His understanding of spacing and positioning generates high-quality looks for the Cowboys.
Overall, Wyoming’s offense consists of a lot of backdowns from two players. The rest of the Cowboys spend time getting ready to shoot (even if they don’t make a lot of jumpers). Wyoming plays a style that is just so unorthodox for 2022, and Indiana will have its hand full trying to guard this fashion of basketball.
TIME TO FEAST?
Wyoming’s defense is the lackluster side of the ball for the Cowboys. The main reason for this is the lack of a true rim protector. Ike’s subpar leaping ability gets exposed on the defensive end. When Ike’s in position, he’s capable of making plays with his size, but he’s often in the wrong spot and his shoddy athletic ability doesn’t give him grace when recovering.
Players usually finish at the rim with ease against Wyoming because there’s nobody there to protect the basket. This is where Xavier Johnson’s downhill ability should come in handy for the Hoosiers on Tuesday night.
As for how Wyoming guards the post, a definitive answer was hard to find. Interestingly, Wyoming didn’t play very many great post players this season. I’d expect the Cowboys to send double teams at Jackson-Davis and maybe Thompson too. The one notable post player Wyoming faced was Cal State Fullerton’s E.J. Anosike, who saw two defenders against the Cowboys most of the time.
While finishers have success at the rim against Wyoming, it’s not always easy to get deep inside the paint. Wyoming’s perimeter defenders are relentless on the outside. In pick-and-roll situations, the Cowboys’ guards do a wonderful job at fighting through screens to stay in a ball handler’s air space.
As for overall ball screen coverage, Wyoming usually puts its big men in drop coverage. Drop coverage just keeps the defending big man in front of the ball handler while allowing the defensive guard to recover to his man.
Johnson has been a wizard for Indiana in the pick and roll recently. Drop coverage attempts to negate any quick hitters on ball screens, but it can sometimes allow for pull-up jump shots. We’ll see if Wyoming continues to play drop coverage on Tuesday and if Johnson can continue his excellence off of ball screens.
The post presence of Jackson-Davis and Thompson should give the Cowboys a challenge they’re not used to facing. I expect IU to throw the ball into the post early and often to test how Wyoming defends post ups and if Indiana can score through the post. If Wyoming struggles guarding post ups, the Hoosiers could be in for a nice offensive night.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND KEYS
Wyoming’s offense is so unique that it may be hard to prepare for in just over 48 hours. For the most part, this style of offense works for Wyoming. Ike and Maldonado are efficient players, and those two are pretty much the entire offense.
Against Division I competition, Ike has a usage rate of 35.3 percent (fifth in the country) and Maldonado has a usage rate of 30.5 percent (45th in the country). The only duo in the nation that uses a higher percentage of possessions is Purdue’s Trevion Williams and Zach Edey, who don’t log minutes at the same time.
The downfall of this philosophy is that when an offense relies on two players at that rate, the team is in danger when just one of those players has a bad game. When Ike and Maldonado are rolling, it’s hard to slow down what the Cowboys do. But when half of the duo has a poor offensive night, Wyoming tends to struggle.
If the Hoosiers can find a way to stop just half of the Cowboy’s dynamic duo from going off, then IU should be in good shape. It’s also notable that Indiana’s defense struggles most against great 3-point shooting teams, and Wyoming isn’t that. Wyoming’s lack of consistent shooting should play in the Hoosiers’ favor.
IU will also need to do its best to speed Wyoming up on Tuesday. The Cowboys are one of the slowest offensive teams in the country, averaging 18.7 seconds per offensive possession.
No play shows Wyoming’s drawn-out tempo better than this one. Wyoming had gone on a spurt and retaken the lead against Boise State. After a miss, and with momentum and a hyped-up crowd, Maldonado was looking to push. But Wyoming head coach Jeff Linder walked up to him and called out a set, and the play took 22 seconds.
The Hoosiers are at their best when they’re running and they just can’t allow the Cowboys to make this a complete half-court game.
Indiana is rightfully favored to win this game to advance to the Round of 64. If they can control the pace, punish the Cowboys inside and not allow Wyoming’s weird offense to throw them off, the Hoosiers should find a way to pull at a victory in Dayton.