Are any of Wyoming’s ‘COVID seniors’ returning?
LARAMIE -- There will be tears shed Saturday afternoon inside the Arena-Auditorium.
For potentially the final time in a Wyoming uniform, Hunter Maldonado, Hunter Thompson and Drake Jeffries will be introduced to the home crowd in Laramie.
Jeff Linder said senior day festivities will happen before the Cowboys take on Fresno State, but that doesn't mean this will be the final home game for those three, who still have one season of eligibility remaining thanks to the NCAA granting a "free year" for student-athletes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Their individual decisions will be made later on, but in case they were not to come back then this would kind of be their natural senior day," Wyoming's second-year head coach said during his Friday press conference. "It will be a good celebration."
If it is indeed that trio's swan song on the high plains, Linder took some time to reminisce about what each has meant to the program since he arrived in the spring of 2019.
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After the ink dried on his new contract to become the 22nd head coach in UW basketball history, his first stop was supposed to be Pine Bluffs. There, Linder was going to sell his vision of the future to Thompson and his family.
There was one problem though.
He was on a flight to Mexico. It was spring break.
"Hey, I'm not sure if that's a wise idea," Linder joked, referring to the virus. "You can get stuck in Cancun."
Instead, Linder headed south down Interstate-25 to Colorado Springs where he would make that same sales pitch to Maldonado and his parents. The then-redshirt sophomore was one of the top players in the program under former head coach Allen Edwards, averaging nearly 16 points per game during the 2019-20 campaign.
At roughly 7:30 p.m., Linder sat in the Maldonado's living room.
Linder said he told him the team would win. It probably sounded crazy at the time. Wyoming was just 9-24 the previous season. The team won just two conference games and finished dead last in the Mountain West.
His pitch worked.
"Obviously, we've seen, in terms of what he's done, the first-team, all-league caliber player, who should definitely get some votes for Most Valuable Player. But, you know, for him to just bring that every day, just the character and just every day coming in and doing your job," Linder said. "I mean, for our younger guys to just see that, you know, he's not going to have a bad day. I mean, I can't think of a bad day that he's had in the two years I've been here.
"He's just really mature. He shows up, he does his job. Not only does that on the court, but he does it off the court, as well."
Linder dished the credit for finding Jeffries to assistant coach Ken DeWeese.
The Mattoon, Illinois product was busy sinking 45% of his 3-point attempts at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa. Jeffries splashed 86 triples on the season.
That skillset was just what the Cowboys were looking for as Linder and Co. started the rebuilding process in Laramie.
It didn't always come easy for Jeffries.
"He had an up and down first year, which a lot of junior college players do," Linder said. "But, at no point in time did he point the finger, did he lay blame. He just continued to work. Then, his opportunity came when Kenny (Foster) propped his ankle and guys got hurt, guys had COVID, and Drake stepped in and he's never looked back.
"... It's been a special year for him. He's also one too that he's just an unbelievable kid."
This won't be the last time these three put on the Brown and Gold. Wyoming will take part in the Mountain West Tournament next week in Las Vegas. The college basketball experts also still have the Cowboys penciled in for the NCAA Tournament.
Linder wants you to know one thing about these guys -- wearing that jersey and the name on the front -- mean something.
"There's going to be tears. I mean, there's going to be a lot of tears, because it meant a lot," he said. "That's how you have to build the University of Wyoming. You've got to find those guys."
Tipoff inside the Arena-Auditorium is set for 2 p.m. and the game will be streamed on the Mountain West Network.