Wyoming, which is 9-1 so far on the season, comes to Pauley Pavilion tonight.
But the Cowboys' 9-1 record is fluff. They've beaten teams like Texas State, Western State, and something called Johnson and Wales (a Division 3 school in Florida).
They've only played two games on the road at Loyola Marymount and Boise State, having lost to BSU. They beat LMU by 7, a team UCLA trounced by 31.
They also had another foe in common, having beaten Prairie View A&M by 5 at home, a team that UCLA beat by 25.
Among the teams they've beaten – that are D-1 – only one has a winning record, Northern Iowa at 6-4. The combined record of the team's Wyoming has beaten is 22-56, and those are all mid- to low-major teams.
We talk about UCLA's cupcake schedule. Wyoming has written the definitive book in cupcake scheduling.
So, to answer the initial question – no.
When the Mountain West Conference gets deep into its conference play, in fact, Wyoming should probably bob around the middle of the pack.
Its first real shot of reality will come tonight against the #10-ranked Bruins.
The Cowboys have a rep for being a running team, and they definitely do try to push it when they can. But they don't necessarily take quick shots. In fact, UCLA has taken more shots per game.
Wyoming can score, though, averaging 84.2 points per game, but you have to figure in that it's been done against some pretty crummy teams. They scored over 97 points three times, against Johnson and Wales, Texas State and Western State.
The team's leader is senior point guard Brandon Ewing (6-2, 180), who is considered one of the best players in the history of the Wyoming program. He has 103 career starts, and 1,731 career points, which helped him to two Mountain West scoring titles. He'll be only the third player in school history to go over 2,000 points in his career.
This season he's scoring 17.5 points per game, has a near 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio and is shooting 85% from the three-point line. He's thin and wiry, and very similar, in fact, to UCLA's Darren Collison, in his ability to score from outside and penetrate inside. The match-up between him and Collison alone make this game worthwhile. The knock on Ewing has always been that he's more of a shooting guard and committed too many turnovers but he's having a very good season so far in his senior year.
The question in the backcourt going into the season was finding a shooting guard, but the Cowboys have definitely found one in Wichita State transfer Sean Ogirri (6-3, 200). Ogirri has been lighting it up, particularly lately, averaging 25.5 points in his last two games (15.6 for the season). He's gone 14 for 25 from three in those two games, and is shooting 43% from three on the season. About 80% of the shots he attempts are from three, so it will make it a little easier on Jrue Holiday to guard him knowing he doesn't penetrate much, but Wyoming runs many screens for him, so Holiday will have to be dilligent in staying close when trailing him and pushing through those screens.
If that weren't enough scoring to try to control, we haven't even gotten to Wyoming's top scorer, redshirt freshman wing Afam Muojeke (6-7, 210), who is averaging 18.6 points per game, and also 4.6 rebounds. The numbers for Wyoming are, of course, a bit exaggerated since they've put them up against some lowly competition, but Muojeke is definitely a potent scoring threat. Muojeke is tough because he can shoot the three (37% on the season), but he's especially difficult to guard going to the basket since he's pretty big and strong. With Josh Shipp out due to his thumb injury, Mike Roll is going to have perhaps his biggest defensive challenge of the season. Muojeke is also, himself, considered a very good defender.
The double-digit scorers for Wyoming don't stop there. Senior forward and team leader Tyson Johnson (6-7, 245) is having an excellent season so far, averaging 15 points per game, almost twice what he did a season ago. He's close to averaging a double-double, getting 9.5 rebounds per game, which is the best in the Mountain West conference. Johnson is exclusively a low-post scorer, using his strength to muscle around the basket, and also draw fouls and get to the line, where he's shooting 83%.
The starting line-up has been rounded out most of the time by sophomore center Mikhail Linksens (7-0, 260), who is, obviously, a huge body, but pretty immobile – basically a space eater. Getting more time has been redshirt freshman Adam Waddell (6-10, 235) because he's far more athletic and a better scorer around the basket. The Wyoming faithful expect Waddell to be the guy down the line, and he actually started in Wyoming's last game.
Getting more time than both of them is sophomore Djibril Thiam (6-10, 205), because he matches up better against smaller, quicker teams. Thiam is actually a very good looking prospect, averaging 7 points and 9 rebounds per game, and is expected to be a force when he's put on more weight and added strength.
Others off the bench are freshman wing A.J. Davis (6-6, 195) and junior forward Mahamoud Diakite (6-7, 225). Both of their minutes have dwindled in the last several games, with Wyoming's head coach Heath Schroyer shortening the Cowboys' bench. On Saturday, the two got 6 and 9 minutes. Galand Thaxton (6-2, 175), a freshman, comes off the bench for about 3 or 4 minutes to give Ewing a short breather.
Depth is definitely Wyoming's biggest issue. For a team that likes a fast-paced game, having a thin bench can take its toll. Ewing is averaging 37 minutes per game, Ogirri 33, Johnson 31 and Muojeke 30.
While you'd think a fast-paced offense would generally be looking to gun it from the outside, the Cowboys have made a concerted effort to run their offense inside-out. They make it a point to get Linksens, Waddell, Johnson and Thiam touches in the post, and then exploit the collapsing defense to find open shooters on the perimeter. It's a fun offense to watch, one with many weapons. They do, though, seem to be looking more for Ogirri lately, and understandably so.
The Cowboys are also a good rebounding team, with so many big guys who get after it on the glass.
Defensively they utilize both a zone and man-to-man, and it's been very effective – against their vastly inferior opponents. It's difficult, though, to draw too many conclusions since Wyoming really hasn't played a good team with a good offense. They allowed Texas State 96 points, Boise State 86, and even gave up 75 to Prairie View, a team UCLA held to 58.
It's pretty safe to say that Wyoming hasn't come close to seeing a team like UCLA yet this season. The best team they've faced is probably Boise State, who lost to BYU 94-56 and Siena 82-52.
While UCLA should have a pretty easy time of it, the match-ups in this one at least make it more interesting than the rest of UCLA's non-conference schedule. Collison v. Ewing, Holiday v. Ogirri, Roll v. Muojeke and UCLA's bigs versus Wyoming's bigs will, possibly, give us a bit more insight into UCLA's personnel, and more entertainment. We've said in game previews before that the match-ups seemed suited for UCLA's freshman center J'mison Morgan, and this one does also, but with Ben Howland pruning his rotation, we don't expect to see Morgan more than the usual 4-8 minutes.